Inside the hospital’s chapel, he knelt respectfully before the Blessed Sacrament. Revering the Eucharist is a common practice for Catholics. But, eucharistic adoration might seem unusual to others, especially leaders of Protestant denominations. Nevertheless, the gentleman praying near the tabernacle that particular evening in Lafayette, Ind., was an evangelical minister.
Glimpsing the Protestant kneeling in the chapel was common for passersby. Eventually the man became fully initiated into the Catholic faith in 1999.
At the same time he was performing duties as a Protestant minister, John Johnson told the Catholic Explorer he found himself drawn to the Catholic faith through his own research into the history of Christianity and through his interactions with lay Catholics, including religious sisters and clergymen.
Over the years, “God opened the door,” Johnson said. He came in contact with many Catholic families while working as a Christian radio announcer in the 1990s. “God used a lot of people,” he added, describing his conversion. While interacting with them, Johnson said he was struck by the concept of contemplative prayer. But, he admitted the idea of the true presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist “took center stage” as he considered conversion.
At that time, however, the minister avoided seeking full membership into the Catholic Church. He mentioned he had problems with two things linked to the faith. Johnson said he took issue with the church’s devotion to the Blessed Mother and he was distressed by methods used by the church during the Crusades and the Inquisition.
As he looked at a statue of the Virgin Mary in the hospital chapel during adoration one night, Johnson said he began to understand her role in the church. He said God had chosen her before she was even born to be the mother of the Messiah. “This woman was prepared from eternity,” he said. In that moment, he said he saw her “as the mother of all.” The thought was quite comforting, he said, explaining his own mother had just passed away.
Before he left his house the next morning, the then-minister learned that Pope John Paul II had made an unprecedented papal statement. In the statement, the leader of the Catholic Church admitted the sins of his forebearers and asked for forgiveness for injustices inflicted throughout the ages in the name of the church. As he heard the pope’s words, Johnson thought, “That’s it. I have no more excuses.”
The middle-aged father of two adult children and grandfather of one is now a member of the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Immaculate Conception in Lafayette and works as a hospice chaplain at St. Elizabeth Hospital in Lafayette. Married for more than 30 years, Johnson mentioned that his wife, who was baptized Catholic, returned to the faith in 2006. Carolyn is “a revert,” he said.
In the years following his conversion, the former minister traveled across the country. Johnson led spiritually-charged retreats and parish missions at faith communities in states, including Indiana, Michigan, Alabama and Florida. A few years ago, however, he stopped traveling to spend more time with his family. In 2006, he began preaching again at parishes near his Lafayette home.
Since he restarted his traveling ministry, Johnson has visited a handful of faith communities in the southern portion of the Diocese of Joliet. Originally from that area, the Ashkum native has delivered talks at parishes, including St. Mary Parish in Beaverville, St. Mary Parish in Paxton, and St. Peter Parish in Piper City. He said he can make the trek to rural Iroquois and Ford counties in the Joliet Diocese in less than two hours. He added that he wants to expand his ministry and present programs in Kankakee. “I use my gifts to inspire” and to encourage Catholics “to move ahead in their faith,” he said.
Johnson recently spoke at SS. Mary and Joseph Parish in Chebanse. The former evangelical minister talked Jan. 21-24 at the Iroquois County church. “The man is very talented. He was very good,” said Father Lee Bacchi, pastor of the parish. “He has a way of drawing people. His story is profound,” added the rural pastor.
Father Bacchi said he hopes people in the southern portion of the diocese will continue inviting the passionate speaker to their respective parishes. “He’s really a great asset down here,” added the priest.
Through conversations with pastors and parishioners in the southern edge of the diocese, Tom Quinlan, director of the diocesan Religious Education Office, mentioned there is “a great need for adult formation” in the rural regions.
Johnson’s ministry is one solution being advocated by the agency, according to Quinlan, to “build up” faith formation in the area. It’s good for Johnson as well as for Catholics in the southern expanse of the diocese, he said. “His story is quite compelling,” he added.