Why I Am Still Catholic

I’ve never stopped being a Catholic. I’ve never stopped believing the faith that was given to me as a child. Except for a short period of doubt when I was a young man, my faith has only deepened over the years. I take no credit for the growth of my faith. I can only thank the Church and the variety of its many graces, from the priesthood itself and daily Mass to the rosary and the sacrament of penance

I am grateful that I have been given the faith to accept what the Church teaches. If the Church is for something, I am for it; if the Church is against something, I am against it. To support Church teaching, I don’t have to be able to win a debate. I simply begin with the assumption that the Church is right. Then I try to find projects to spread the faith and to strengthen the Church wherever I can.

A Tough Start

Though my father died when I was four, I remember going to church with him and mom. My mother, who was a convert to Catholicism, returned to nursing school after my father’s death and couldn’t handle raising two boys. She sent me to live with a non-Catholic couple who didn’t go to any church. To her credit, she took me away from that family two years later and placed me in St. Joseph’s Home for Boys in Jackson, Michigan. There, I received my Catholic upbringing.

I lived at St. Joseph’s with about fifty boys, a priest, and about ten nuns until I was twelve; it was like being raised in a seminary. One of the nuns, Sr. Barada, was my teacher for the first two years, as well as a virtual mother and father to me. Later on, Sr. Ladislaus, who was more of a disciplinarian than Sr. Barada, had an important role in shaping my life. I remember her as very tough but always fair.

We spent a great deal of time in chapel—daily rosary, morning prayers, and nightly benediction were part of our daily discipline. Almost every waking hour in St. Joseph’s was focused on religion and God. The nuns who raised me were very holy and close to God. Perhaps they are why I decided to be a priest in second grade. It’s funny that when I was given the role of a priest in a school play I forgot my lines.

I was still living at St. Joseph’s when I started attending the local parochial school. It made me sad to see the kids who got to go home to their parents. So, naturally, the St. Joseph’s kids started looking forward to the day when they would leave the orphanage. We were different from the public school kids—we had more knowledge about the faith and more discipline to put it to work. My thorough religious training at the orphanage gave me no doubts that there was a true Church, and I believed in her.

We received our discipline, in part, from our clean-up duties in the orphanage. We spent thirty minutes every day cleaning our part of the orphanage and all morning on Saturday. I got the privilege of cleaning the chapel when I was in fourth grade, the most honorific duty in the whole place. I was allowed to be an altar boy a year earlier than the other kids because, for whatever reasons, I was considered precocious.

Gift of the Priesthood

When I was twelve, I went to live with my mother in Traverse City, Michigan. The life of strict supervision at the orphanage was gone; I could do almost anything I wanted. My mother, now a nurse, went to work at 11 p.m. every night and slept much of the day.

I was fortunate to have a parish priest, Fr. Passeno, who took me under his wing and gave me jobs around the church. I was always one of the few children he would take on his business trips, including those to see the bishop. He was a good influence, and I admired him as a priest and as a father figure.

I’ve always had a tremendous amount of respect for the priesthood. I think priests should be treated with more respect than presidents or kings. After he dies, I think John Paul II should be called John Paul the Great, like Popes Leo and Gregory. His influence on the twentieth century has been unparalleled. The Holy Father and the Solidarity movement broke the communist barriers down in Poland. This feat alone demonstrated his greatness and courage as well as his willingness to take on the world. No doubt it was Divine Providence that he was an actor as a young man and learned how to deal with the crowds. I am blessed to have met John Paul II many times.

I only lived with my mother about a year. She was a highly emotional person and couldn’t handle me or my ten-year-old brother, Jim. So I started living on farms with foster families. One of the families was Catholic, the others were not, but I never missed Mass on Sundays. That was the one thing I wouldn’t let myself do.

When I turned seventeen, I started seminary. Unfortunately, things were rocky from the start. I was familiar with institutional life, unlike the other kids, who had never lived on their own and were intimidated by the surroundings. I got caught pillow-fighting in the dorm and talking in study hall; I have always had a lot of energy, probably too much sometimes. Shortly after Easter, I was asked to leave. I suspect it didn’t help that during that time my mother had written a letter to the rector complaining that I didn’t write home enough.

Leaving the seminary was a huge disappointment to me because I had always wanted to become a priest. I hung on to this goal for a while and even talked to Catholic chaplains in the Marines about it, but it turned out not to be my calling. I was probably reluctant to go through the schooling necessary for ordination.

After the seminary, I started living on farms with foster families again, in some cases supporting myself. I’d get several dollars a week for doing chores that I loved to do, and I worked so hard that they often gave me a little extra money.

I went home to Traverse City again midway through the eleventh grade because I wanted to try out for basketball. Walking home from practice one October day I got picked up by the sheriff. He took me to my house to get my belongings and then took me to a detention home, where I spent the next six months. I couldn’t believe it. In retrospect, I realize that my mother just didn’t want me around the house. She never explained why.

The detention home was an awakening for me. I had never seen hard-core delinquents before. I was the oldest in a house of about a dozen kids of all ages. In fact, at age seventeen, I was not supposed to be there. A policeman, John McCloskey, and his wife were in charge of all the boys. I am grateful that they recognized I was different and treated me almost as one of their own children.

After six months, I went to live in Ann Arbor with my father’s sister, who had discovered my whereabouts and gotten control of me from the court. I lived there from the end of my junior year until I graduated in 1955 from St. Thomas in Ann Arbor. From that time forward, I was on my own. I rented a room in a house and worked as a soda jerk making sodas and banana splits in record time. That was my first experience in the food industry.

Afterward, I went to the Farris Institute for one quarter in Big Rapids, Michigan. But I had no money to stay in school and support myself, so I enlisted in the Marine Corps. It was 1956 and I was nineteen. There were some Catholics in my outfit but they didn’t go to Mass on Sunday, so I went on my own. I served as a Marine in Okinawa, Japan, as well as in the Philippines.

Some Momentary Doubts

It was after returning from overseas that I started having doubts, the only doubts I have ever had about my faith. Thoughts started creeping through my mind about the Bible’s authenticity. After all, I thought, the Bible was handed down through so many years. How could I be sure that people’s imaginations didn’t get carried away? How could I know that Christ really rose from the dead? I wondered how I could read the Bible and be certain of its message.

Then one day I picked up a book at the military-base library. It was called Rebuilding a Lost Faith by an American Agnostic, written in 1922. After I read that book I never had doubts again. The author was John L. Stoddard who, while studying to become a minister, started doubting his Protestant faith. He tells how he very gradually came into the Catholic Church by examining certain questions like mine concerning the interpretation of Scripture. Stoddard writes:

Suddenly, as my heart cried out thus for a divinely appointed interpreter of God’s Revelation, I realized for the first time that Christ Himself neither wrote a book, nor dictated one to any of his disciples. What he had done was to found a Church, which he had promised to remain with and to guide. If he had wished that his religion should be propagated and preserved by a book only, why should he not have written one? The truth is that Christianity preceded the New Testament. The Gospels and Epistles were written for the benefit of the Church which already existed.

This was the only period when I strayed at all from the faith. I probably missed half the Masses during that six-month period in the Marine Corps. Other than that, I’ve never missed Mass on Sundays. I certainly haven’t always been in the state of grace, but I believe I have been for some thirty years now. I make an appointment with my confessor every two weeks. Going to confession on a regular basis is something I would urge every Catholic to do.

After the Marine Corps I went to college for a while at the University of Michigan. I was completely broke. I had lost my savings while in the service and had lost my Corps wages to an Irish con artist who talked me into investing in oil wells. I ended up setting pins in a bowling alley to earn money for a bus ticket back to Ann Arbor.

Back at home, I was in and out of college at the University of Michigan while I worked in a newspaper office supervising paper boys. Then I bought a newsstand at the corner of Main and Huron in Ann Arbor and started a New York Times home delivery route. I learned something about politics from reading all those papers I sold—papers from New York, Chicago, Toledo, and Detroit.

At the time, I was a Democrat. Naturally, during the 1959 presidential race, I became a big Kennedy fan. However, as I closely examined Kennedy, I gradually changed my political affiliation. I was against his emphasis on big government and welfare entitlements, and I obviously encouraged free enterprise. It was hard for me to let go of him because he was an Irish Catholic, but I became a Republican anyway.

The Pizza Business

I went into the pizza business with my brother in 1960. We bought a place called Dominic’s and the rest is history. The story has been told in detail in my book, written with Robert Anderson, Pizza Tiger. Most people don’t know that before my success I was insolvent several times, but I never filed for bankruptcy. I even lost control of the company one time only to get it back in worse shape ten months later. But I’ve always been proud of the fact that I was honest. I have never cheated or stolen anything.

I got this moral determination from the nuns. They gave me a reasonably good sense of right and wrong which is a big asset in business. As a result, I think I always was respected by the people who worked for me. In the early days, a number of them, I am proud to say, asked me to be the best man at their weddings.

As CEO of Domino’s Pizza, I have been able to withstand the criticism of groups like the National Organization of Women and Planned Parenthood because I have a very deep certainty about the truth of the Church and my ability to withstand all these challenges. For example, in 1988-89, 50 percent of the American people were encouraged to boycott Domino’s because of my efforts to pass an antiabortion bill. The boycott did hurt our business significantly. But I went ahead and raised money, starting with my own $50,000 in matching funds, to defeat tax-funded abortions. The bill we passed stopped more than 20 percent of Michigan abortions. During the boycott, I decided, So what? If the company is going down the tubes, it’s going to be for a darn good reason. Needless to say, we survived.

The growth of Domino’s has enabled me to start projects like Legatus. Legatus, a spiritual organization for Catholic CEOs, is extremely important. With God’s help I hope to build this into a worldwide organization with thousands of members. I’m not sure how big it will get, but I hope it will grow from the two thousand members we presently have to about five thousand.

If Legatus gets talented, visible, resourceful people to be better Catholics, then it will have made an important contribution to the Church. Legatus members do become more knowledgeable about the teachings of the Church. Many of them will eventually do the same kind of things I’m trying to do and more. Major changes will result because a successful, motivated businessman can do far more good than the average person.

In addition to Legatus, I have started a Catholic school project, called Spiritus Sanctus (see sidebar), for grades K-6. The Spiritus Sanctus schools have already started in Ann Arbor but eventually will be franchised throughout the country. I also am publishing Credo, a Catholic newspaper sent for free to Catholics in the Ann Arbor diocese. Recently I have started a Catholic AM radio station in Ann Arbor that will offer original programming as well as many of Mother Angelica’s radio broadcasts.

Spiritual Transformation

People wonder why I spend so much of my time and energy with these projects. I can only say my desire to serve the Church has been a gift from God. My spiritual life dramatically changed when I started going to Mass every day in 1974. I had read about Coach Don Shula of the Miami Dolphins, who attended Mass daily. I heard about Shula’s daily Mass attendance just after he had that tremendous season (17-0), and I thought “Why can’t I do that? If he’s got the time to do it, so do I!” I have found out that many very successful people go to daily Mass. A person can’t go to Communion every day and live a lie. It just isn’t possible. I started going, got used to it, and liked it. That was the biggest change in my spiritual life. Daily Mass may well be the key to the kind of lay leadership the Catholic Church so desperately needs. I realized recently that 1974 was about when my business began to take off.

About that time, I became very active in the Knights of Columbus for about a year. I helped them start many activities, such as a newsletter. I also developed a deep devotion to the Mother of God. I heard a sermon by Fr. Robert Lumsford that got me started saying the rosary every day. I learned about the different appearances of Mary where she urged us to say the rosary. I decided if Mary thought it important, then it shouldn’t be that hard for me to do. I began praying the rosary, and now I say it three times a day.

My devotion to Mary deepened after I went to Medjugorje in 1984 with Fr. Michael Scanlan, president of Franciscan University. The apparitions were still in the early stages. I squeezed into a little room next to the church with about a dozen people. Suddenly a nun came in with two of the child visionaries. We said the rosary in Serbian. After the rosary, both the children dropped to their knees with their hands folded and focused on the wall. Though I couldn’t see anything on the wall, it was obvious they could. Their heads were moving a little bit. I couldn’t see their mouths because I was behind them. That was the highlight of my life—I was actually in the room with Mary. I don’t know how long the apparition took place, but it seemed like five minutes.

What I witnessed at Medjugorje led me to begin fasting. Mary asks us to fast on Wednesday and Friday. Who am I to say that I don’t feel like doing it? It’s good for me because it teaches discipline—something I feel I have little of, despite my childhood at St. Joseph’s. I like bread, but it’s the discipline that is important.

Hope in the Church

In the early 1970s I became aware of the changes in the Church. I didn’t get involved in all the controversy over Vatican II. I wasn’t very knowledgeable about Humane Vitae and those sorts of debates. But I knew that the Church was not going to go astray, and I always felt that I could rely on her even if I didn’t understand all the controversies. The Church was the rock lying deep underneath all of these changes. The Church is what I could rely upon.

I have never worried about the Catholic dissidents splitting off from the Church. They only give us a bad name. The Ted Kennedys of the world are not doing the Church any favors by being known as Catholics. For the last 30 years, Catholic lay leaders like Ted Kennedy have led many individuals spiritually adrift.

However, the dissidents are only a small part of the story. There are many more hopeful developments in the Church. For example, there is a large new movement of converts, like Thomas Howard, Fr. George Rutler, Deal W. Hudson, and Richard John Neuhaus. In Ann Arbor there is a group of converts whose influence is spreading throughout the country.

Converts, unlike many cradle Catholics, know why they are Catholic. Too many cradle Catholics don’t know what the Church teaches. If you don’t know the doctrines of the faith, living the faith becomes difficult, if not impossible. On the other hand, it seems to me these converts are lighting a fire and sparking a wider interest in and deeper understanding of our faith.

Many people want to be good Catholics, but they need a nudge. That’s why I’ve gotten more involved in helping the Church. We must begin by getting Catholics to go back to confession. Being in a state of sanctifying grace is something all Catholics should be thinking about. Retreats are also an effective means for the renewal of faith. They provide the opportunity to stop, take a look, and make amends in our lives.

Spiritual reading is another important opportunity for renewal and growth. The Bible is the obvious place to start, especially the Gospels. Apart from Scripture, the most meaningful spiritual book I’ve ever read is Sr. Anna Catherina Emmerick’s The Life of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Combined with the Bitter Passion and the Life of Mary. Several years ago, while attending Mass at Domino’s Farms, I found the fourth volume lying in the chair where I always sat. One part that stands out describes Christ’s agony in the garden of Gethsemane:

Before the soul of the Lord, there passed in review all the future sufferings of his Apostles, disciples, and friends, and the small number of the primitive Church. As her numbers increased, he saw heresies and schisms entering her fold, and the sin of Adam repeated by pride and disobedience in all forms of vanity and elusive self-righteousness. The tepidity, the malice, the wickedness of innumerable Christians; the manifold lies, the deceptive subtlety of all proud teachers; the sacrilegious crimes of all wicked priests with their frightful consequences; the abomination of desolation in their Kingdom of God upon earth, in the sanctuary of the thankless human race whom amid inexpressible sufferings, he was about to redeem with his blood and his life.

Reading all four volumes was very laborious, but I muddled through it over a long course of time. It was worth the effort.

I’ve often thought that Catholics keep their light under a bushel, so to speak. If the re-evangelization of Catholics is successful, then they will let their light shine. Catholics need to learn from the example of the Jews to speak out in defense of what they believe. Within the Catholic faith we need more lay leaders to show people what Catholics really are. This, as I have explained, is my reason for founding Legatus.

There is already a positive change in the Church. Things of this world are a dead-end street; we have to hit bottom before we can get going. The hedonistic life that the media and even parents sometimes teach doesn’t work. Once we understand the bigger meaning of life, the faith will spread like wildfire. In addition to conversions, the numbers of vocations and Mass attendance are beginning to turn up. I believe we’re on the verge of genuine renewal. Our Holy Father John Paul II sees it coming. As he has written in Tertio Millennio Adveniente:

The 2,000 years which have passed since the birth of Christ . . . represent an extraordinarily great jubilee, not only for Christians but indirectly for the whole of humanity, given the prominent role played by Christianity during these two millennia. It is significant that the calculation of the passing years begins almost everything with the year of Christ’s coming into the world, which is thus the center of the calendar most widely used today. Is this not another sign of the unparalleled effect of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth on the history of mankind?


  • Thomas S. Monaghan

    Thomas S. Monaghan, founder and CEO of Domino's Pizza, is the recipient of the 1997 Crisis Partnership Award

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