So last weekend I hopped on a plane and flew down to Birmingham, Alabama. I've never been to Alabama before, and in some respects I suspect that I have yet to see the real Alabama, because the purpose of my trip was not to visit the Yellowhammer State but to put in an appearance on Marcus Grodi's Journey Home program on EWTN. I've never been on TV before, either, so the whole trip was something of a novelty for me.
I was picked up at the airport by an EWTN car, and it was a short drive to "the compound", barely 20 minutes at the most. Since it was Sunday there weren't many people about and, in particular, there didn't seem to be anybody in the little booth at the entrance to check our passports or anything--we just drove right in and I was taken to a house (called "Madonna House" by the locals) where I would stay for the duration. It seems that EWTN owns a number of houses on its property and some of the employees live in them, some of them are used for guests, and at least one of them is used as a set for some of their shows.
The house was deserted when I got there, but I knew that there would be two more gentlemen joining me before my stay was completed. That didn't stop me from looking around a bit. It was a modest house, tastefully decorated. Lots of Catholic art on the walls, and a crucifix in every room (except the bathroom; I didn't actually look in the garage). There was a big TV just like in a hotel, and it had cable, including ETWN. I didn't check to see whether it blocked the sorts of channels that regular EWTN viewers would find objectionable. There was a computer but the internet connection wasn't working, which was probably a good thing or I would have wasted a lot of time reading my email when I should have been preparing my classes for my return to Ohio.
Since I had been traveling all day I had not had an opportunity to attend Mass, so when I heard bells ringing I thought that perhaps there was going to be an evening Mass that I could attend, so I high-tailed it to the chapel--the very chapel where they have the Masses that one can watch on EWTN each day. It turned out not to be Mass, but Vespers, which was the next best thing as far as I was concerned, so I stayed and enjoyed the largish community of folks who had turned out. After Vespers there was a Benediction service, and then I returned to my little house. I was soon joined there by Fr. Trevor Nicholls, a former Anglican Priest turned Catholic priest (thanks to the Pastoral Provision of 1980). He turned out to be a delightful conversationalist, and we had many fine conversations over the course of just a day and a half.
Monday morning dawned early for me, what with it being in a different time zone and all, and I got up to say the Office. By this time I was starting to get a little nervous about my appearance on Journey Home--what on earth was I going to talk about for an hour? My own conversion story seems prosaic and uninspiring to me, and it is very difficult to imagine why on earth anybody would want to hear all the gory details. My confidence was not the least bit increased by my conversations with Fr. Nicholls, who was not only far more articulate than I but who also had a nifty British accent sure to wow the folks in the audience.
To take my mind off my troubles, I attended the daily Mass at noon. The venue was small and it was packed full of people--I had to stand at the back, along with several others. The liturgy was exceptionally well executed, I thought, with great reverence all around. Indeed, many who received Holy Communion did so kneeling on the ground, and even those who did not kneel to receive made a genuflection rather than bowing the head prior to reception. Servers held small patens under the chins of all who received.
After Mass I walked around the compound, but there wasn't much to explore: part of the enclosure is a monastery, and one cannot just walk in and look about. On the other hand, right next to the house where I was staying was a "farm" of satellite dishes--seven in all, one of them as large as the two-storey house in which I was staying. (You can see these dishes, and the house in which I stayed, if you look at the EWTN compound with Google Earth. You will not see me snooping around the dishes, and you certainly won't see me trying to break into the monastery. I really have no idea what you're talking about.)
When it was finally time for the taping, I changed into my best dress uniform and walked over to the studio with Fr. Nicholls. His uniform was much nicer than mine, being all black and priestly, but I did have on a nice tie and a sweet little silk hankie that Lisa gave me for Christmas about twelve years ago. Nevertheless as I walked along beside him I couldn't help feeling like a pair of old brown shoes at a black tie party.
The studio was deserted except for Marcus Grodi, the host of The Journey Home, and his crew, which seemed to me to number fewer than a dozen people. There were three cameramen, a Franciscan stage director who also applied makeup to everyone, and the producer and director and whoever else was back in "the booth". Although there were chairs for an audience, there was nobody there watching the taping. Some episodes of the show are live, and they take calls from viewers and questions form the audience, but both shows we taped that night were canned.
Fr. Nicholls went first, which meant that I had to watch him be all urbane and sophisticated before I went out there with my countrified Ohio ways. Shucks, Padre, that there was some mighty fancy talkin'! When my turn came I was still a little nervous, but since the studio was basically empty it didn't seem so bad. I soon discovered that I wasn't going to have any trouble filling up the time allotted--what with my blabbermouth ways and all--and the conversation seemed to go fairly smoothly. At the end, however, I couldn't help feel that I had done a terrible job. It seemed that I hadn't really said anything very substantive--but on the other hand, I was just supposed to be bearing witness to my conversion, so I don't think there was any expectation that I produce philosophical gems (if only I could get the folks at Ohio University to see things the same way).
Then it was all over. Fr. Nicholls and I talked long into the evening about many things, and then the next day I flew home. All in all I found the experience rather exciting, and one certainly can't help wishing that one lived in a community with such a strong Catholic identity. The task, I suppose, is to make a community where one is, rather than travel around looking for one to sneak into. It's difficult in a secular university to make such a community, but we already have the beginnings of one here, at least among some of the Catholic students. But I have to admit that when the guy who drove me back to the airport told me that he had retired from the fire department in Florida in order to take a job at EWTN, the idea didn't seem like a bad one to me.