Back to the church

By  Maria Di Paolo, Catholic Register Special
  • January 6, 2009
{mosimage}The Longest Trip Home: A Memoir , by John Grogan (Harper Collins, 352 pages, hardcover, $27.95).

John Grogan, author of the bestselling Marley and Me, about his dysfunctional but loveable family pet, has just published a second book, The Longest Trip Home. This time he writes about his life, about growing up Catholic near Detroit and about discovering who he is as an adult and parent. 

The trip he refers to in the title is in fact two closely intertwined journeys. The first, his journey through life to maturity and the second, a spiritual journey that eventually brings him back to his roots in the Catholic Church.

Grogan’s warm and engaging story is well worth reading and provides some important insights into conversion and faith.

{sa 0061713244}The youngest of four children, Grogan grew up in a Catholic family. Both his parents were devout and tried to pass on as much of their faith as they could through active involvement in their church and a faith-filled home life. The house was filled with religious artifacts, priests were often invited over for supper and family holidays might include a visit to some religious site. All the Grogan children were as involved in the local church community as they could be. One older brother, at some point, had dreamt of becoming a priest. There was a tacit assumption that all the Grogan children would turn out to be as devout as their parents. 

However, after Grogan left home to attend university, he quickly drifted away from the church. The problem was that in spite of all his parents had done to ensure their children had a solid Catholic upbringing, young Grogan had never been able to claim the Catholic faith as his own. He also discovered that the same was true for his brothers and sister. There was no anger or acrimony in his drift from the church. The only worry was what his parents would say when they found out he was not going to Mass any more. He is slightly comforted when he discovers that his older siblings are in the same boat.

Eventually, Grogan falls in love with and marries Jennifer, a non-practising Presbyterian. Through this relationship Grogan finds the emotional strength to grow into adulthood and into his own life. He starts to define himself as being separate from his parents and to understand that this is a good thing. There were still many unresolved issues between him and his parents around faith and the church, but in spite of this, there was clearly much love and respect on both sides.

In 2002, Grogan’s father was diagnosed with leukemia. What had been initially a chronic condition that the doctors said could develop slowly became acute and life threatening over the next two years. Grogan describes in some detail the last few weeks of his father’s life and the gathering together of the family. On the day of his father’s death, he visits the hospital chapel and prays. 

In the end, his conversion happened slowly and unexpectedly. In the following year Grogan became friends with a Catholic priest, Fr. Michael Murray, and then on the first anniversary of his father’s death he went to the church near his house for Mass for the first time since he moved to the area five years before. The book ends here, but it is clear that Grogan’s conversion has just begun.

In The Longest Trip Home  Grogan has written a simple and engaging story about life, but he also points out some important truths about conversion and faith. It was not realistic for Grogan’s parents to assume that his understanding and acceptance of faith would be the same as theirs. Likewise, it would not be realistic for us to expect that of our children. All that we should expect to give our children is a solid grounding in the Catholic faith in which they feel comfortable and supported. If we do this then there is a chance that our children will also experience their own moment of conversion and, at the right point, return to their spiritual home.  

Each of us needs to assimilate our faith in our own way and in our own time. Grogan’s friendship with Fr. Murray was very different to his parents’ relationship to their own priest friends and Grogan’s understanding and observance of Catholicism will not be the same as his parents. Grogan knows this and is at peace.

What makes Grogan’s book so captivating is his ability to get inside the skin of, and understand what motivates, the characters in it. He writes with a good balance of introspection and perception. He does not blame his parents or himself because he cannot be the kind of faith-filled person his parents would have liked him to be. He comes to understand and respect the human frailties and differences on both sides. It is because of this openness and perception that he can write so naturally and touchingly about his simple journey back home to his roots in the Catholic Church.

In the end, Grogan is at peace with both his relationship with his parents and with the church.

(Di Paolo is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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