Helping Those Who Seek the Faith
Catholic author Gary Jansen reflects on his humble roots, how he reaches audience
BY LISA MLADINICH
Gary Jansen, a native of Long Island, New York, has been willing to be surprised by life. His early years spent in poverty, he worked from a young age doing odd jobs, such as manufacturing buttons, sweeping floors, and pumping gas. Later he repaired cars, delivered furniture, and worked as a guitar tech and roadie. He developed a passion for punk rock, Star Wars, and comic books.
Jansen entered Adelphi University as a business major, but an encounter with an inspiring poet changed his path forever, and he switched to the English department. A short stint after college in insurance was followed by a job at Random House, one of the most influential publishers in the world. Then, after three years of working as an editorial assistant, he quit to embark on a spiritual journey, roaming the cathedrals and shrines of Europe in search of God. When he returned, Random House asked him to come back to work and promoted him. His professional trajectory is impressive.
A best-selling Catholic author and popular speaker who regularly appears on television and radio, Jansen is one of the most impactful editors of religious books working today. He has served as editor to some of the most famous Catholic voices in modern history, including Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Bishop Robert Barron, Scott Hahn, George Weigel, Colleen Carroll Campbell, and Brant Pitre.
But Gary Jansen hasn’t forgotten his roots, and he has a heart for reaching people who don’t speak the language of the Catholic faith.
Q: Gary, congratulations on being named executive editor at the Crown Publishing Group. You’re a best-selling author and lecturer, a husband and father, and you still find time to help out at your parish. Talk about what drives you to work so hard.
A: Both of my parents were workhorses — and underdogs, too. I think those are running motifs in my life and in my writing — work and the underdog. One of my favorite movies of all time is Rocky, because it’s the story of an underdog. Jesus was an underdog, too.
Q: What was your life like growing up?
A: My mom and dad married when they were 16 and 17. By the time my parents were in their mid-20s, they had five kids. That might not be a big deal in some Catholic communities, but neither of my parents graduated high school, and for much of my childhood my parents had little money. They both came from low-income families. To save money, my parents and I lived in my grandparents’ basement until I was about 6. The basement had a dirt floor and was damp all the time. My dad was an upholsterer and carpenter. My mom was a maid. My dad would often work 14 to 16 hours. That’s a lot of time, and it was still tough to save money.
My mom realized early on that the only way that we were going to be able to spend time together as a family was to be with my dad when he worked in the evenings. So that meant all of us being hauled into a truck or a van after dinner every night, and then for several hours, my sisters and I would do homework in the back of a truck — with furniture and chemicals and stuff like that — while my dad would deliver furniture and do service calls. And then we would go home, go to bed, and do it again the next day. My parents would work weekends too, so it was nonstop work. No day of rest. They were trying to raise themselves out of poverty, which they eventually did, but at the expense of their family.
Q: In what sense?
A: When you work too much, it obviously drains you. It’s easy for you to argue and explode when you’re tired, when you’re frustrated, when you’re trying to pay bills.That can destroy a marriage. In terms of economic levels, more domestic violence happens in lower-income neighborhoods than in higher-income neighborhoods. Lately I’ve really become interested in the effects of stress on people. When you are under huge socioeconomic stress, it literally changes your brain and your neurochemistry to the point where you make bad decisions, which in turn perpetuates more bad decisions. It’s a vicious loop.
Q: What was the upside?
A: I became independent pretty quickly. By around 10 or 11 I was cooking food for everyone, doing my own laundry, and that sort of thing. I started staying home at night and taking care of my sisters, and then my parents would just go out and do work at night.
I think so much of my writing and so much about the way I think about things comes down to class struggle. Rockville Centre [New York] is a pretty rich town. There were million-dollar houses on one side of town, but we lived in the blue-collar area, and we grew up in a mixed community. … My family grew up with an awareness of other people and the struggles they were going through. Didn’t matter what color we were; all of us were struggling to make ends meet.
Q: Tell us about your spiritual development.
A: I went to Catholic school for 12 years and was a member of the first graduating class at Kellenberg Memorial High School. Though I get frustrated with religion sometimes, it’s part of who I am. I can’t escape it. It’s in my bloodstream, though in college I really didn’t focus on my religion at all. I had other things to focus on like dating and studying. This was definitely a period of secularization for me, which I don’t think was a bad thing. It gave my faith an opportunity to “bake” while I was doing other things.
Maybe I needed to mature before I could come back to my faith. I know a lot of atheists or agnostics would say, “Well no, you going back to your faith is a sign of regression, of immaturity,” but I don’t think so. There was a period of about five years where I just wasn’t interested in thinking about God, but I think it was laying ground-work for something else later on in my life.
When I started working after college, I met Eric Hafker, who was a really devout Lutheran. And we would have conversations about the meaning of life over beers. He introduced me to a lot of Catholic spiritual writers like Henri Nouwen. Then he suggested that I should go on a spiritual retreat. I had never been on one and I didn’t want to go at first, but I did, and that experience transformed my life.
Q: The story of that experience is an important piece of your new book, Life Everlasting. Tell us why.
A: In the story about my first retreat, I wanted people to see in that moment that the Holy Spirit was working through this frail, elderly priest who was giving the opening talk. When I saw him hobble to the podium, I thought, How is this man still alive? And yet as soon as he opened his mouth, he was connected to this power and this glory!
Q: And because of the priest’s age and condition, the story plants the seed that the Holy Spirit can work powerfully through any of us.
A: It’s also true that God was speaking through my friend. It wasn’t my idea to go on retreat. We were sitting in a bar! It was “10-cent-wings-and-beers night,” and we were just sitting there chatting, and he said, “You should go on this retreat!” That’s what got me to go. It’s a reminder that we all can be instruments of the Holy Spirit.
Q: It’s a great story and makes its point well.
A: That’s what I’m trying to do, connect with other people through stories and get away from the jargon we use when we talk about the faith — it often gets in the way. It’s taken me some time to heed my own advice, though, and I still forget that Catholicism has its own language. At my book launch for Life Everlasting, someone came up to me after my talk and said, “I don’t know what you were talking about, but it moved me.” It’s uplifting and disconcerting. There are seekers out there that have a different vocabulary than I have. I’m looking for a common language that will help me connect with as many people as possible. Jesus used simple language; he told simple stories.
Q: I’m intrigued that the press release for Life Everlasting says that your book is meant for seekers of all faiths. How would you describe a “seeker”?
A: A seeker is someone who feels something pulling at him or her. It’s not a physical thing. There’s a yearning in seekers that is never fulfilled with stuff. I have a huge CD collection. I think my desire for music was a search for God in some ways. I was always looking for the next thing to assuage this restless feeling inside me. I love music, but after the music is over, I still have this thing tugging at me. I used to think it could be answered with more music, but I know it can’t.
Q: Tell us why this moment of your life and the life of the Church is ripe for offering Catholic devotions to a diverse audience.
A: There are studies showing a shift in demographics. People are leaving organized religion because they’re bored or they’re not fulfilled. I think part of the reason for this is because we often take the supernatural out of our faith. We politicize faith. Make it about issues. But Catholicism is born from a supernatural event that happened 2,000 years ago. We can intellectualize it, but that just isn’t fulfilling. Devotions in their simplicity are reminders of our supernatural roots.
I loved Scooby Doo when I was a kid. And I would always watch the show on Saturday mornings. Every week there was a new mystery to investigate. I think that’s one of the reasons I love my faith. There are so many different Catholic mysteries to investigate, especially when you start looking at the devotions. If the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, then the Catholic faith is like Scooby Doo. Zoinks!