When the traditionalist Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei needed a clergyman to win the hearts of cynical, busy Washingtonians, it chose a Web-savvy former investment banker-turned-priest to preach the Word two blocks from the White House.
Ever since the Rev. C. John McCloskey, 47, arrived in town in July 1998, daily Mass attendance at the Catholic Information Center at 815 15th St. NW has blossomed to 100 worshippers. They range from the well-known, such as former Democratic vice-presidential candidate and Peace Corps director Sargent Shriver, to the unknown.
Father McCloskey, who oversees the information center, concedes no quarter to modernism. His long black cassock stands out amid K Street lobbyists and office workers scurrying about nearby McPherson Square.
“Hes fairly quiet and not at all the bombastic type,” says Linda Poindexter, a former Episcopal priest-turned-Roman Catholic. “Hes persistent. He attracts people because hes very brilliant and thoughtful.”
Mrs. Poindexter, wife of retired Adm. John Poindexter, a national security adviser during the Reagan administration, volunteers occasionally at the center. The blue-carpeted, airy 6,000-square-foot complex includes a Florentine-style chapel with a baldachino (canopy) over the altar. Stained glass visages of St. Thomas More and St. John Vianney gaze down on worshippers there and in the adjoining bookstore.
Although owned by the Archdiocese of Washington, the information center has been staffed by Opus Dei priests since 1992. Overseeing it is Father McCloskey, a cleric featured on www.catholicity.com who gives “spiritual direction” to 70 persons a week, including many Hispanic professionals. The priest, who spent two years in Spain and was ordained there in 1981, is fluent in Spanish.
Occasionally he fits in a game of squash. His favorite movie: “Babettes Feast.” On the bedside table: British historian Simon Schamas “Rembrandts Eyes” and two Pulitzer Prize-winners, “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis and “Gotham: A History of New York City to 1898” by Edwin C. Burrows and Mike Wallace.
All that gives a brief respite to his priestly counseling, which is “very tiring,” he says over a glass of Merlot at a nearby restaurant. “Youre in the position of being all things to all men. Its been said that spiritual direction is the greatest art because you are dealing with the immortal soul.
“My basic attitude is I never turn down anyone. Everyone is worthy of my attention as a priest.” Some of the people who seek him out end up converting, including former abortion activist Dr. Bernard Nathanson, economist Larry Kudlow and columnist Robert Novak. Dr. Nathanson says the persistent priest waited nearly 10 years for him to turn to Christianity.
“Hed come to my house and give me reading materials,” the doctor said in a 1996 interview. “He guided me down the path to where I am now. I owe him more than anyone else.”
Mr. Novak, who abandoned his Jewish faith in college, says he was spiritually seeking when he met the priest in the mid-1980s.
“Wed talk a little bit about politics and a little bit about faith,” the columnist says, “and hed give me some reading material. He was a great inspiration, as one doesnt turn to the Catholic faith these days for fashionable purposes.”
Jennifer Ferrara, a former minister with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was received into the Catholic Church in 1998 by Father McCloskey. She just had met him through another Lutheran female minister stationed at Princeton, N.J., who also converted to catholicism.
“He is both pastoral and firm in his convictions,” Mrs. Ferrara says. “That is very appealing to people. When I first met with him, I told him I still had a great reverence for Martin Luther. He told me in time, that would diminish. And it did.”
The priests tendency to serve things straight in a politically correct age, she said, is a plus.
“If I have a question about Catholicism, he is the person I usually e-mail,” says Mrs. Ferrara, who lives in Reading, Pa. “He is a wealth of information and he is always prompt.”
“He always seems to be converting interesting people,” Mrs. Poindexter says. “Hes almost one of those people who stands out of the way so what he is saying does not get in the way. That is why people are converted. They are attracted to what he is presenting instead of him.
“Its kind of like Sara Lee. No one doesnt like him.”
Born in Bethesda, Father McCloskey attended St. Johns College High School in the District, then majored in economics at Columbia University while working at Citibank. He then worked for Merrill Lynch until 1978, when he traveled to Rome to study for the priesthood.
The young priest was already a bright light in the Opus Dei firmament when he was assigned as chaplain at Princeton University in 1985. However, his connection with Opus Dei and insistence on traditional Catholic teaching on human sexuality incurred opposition, and he left the campus in 1990 for a nearby Opus Dei center.
“Students and others in the Princeton community were appreciative of his religious guidance,” wrote St. Louis University history professor James Hitchcock, who got his doctorate at Princeton in “Academic Questions,” a scholarly journal.
“What really bothered his critics, which for obvious reasons they could not admit, was that intelligent people, including undergraduates, did find his message attractive.”
So did Wall Street economist Larry Kudlow, who credits the priest with helping him recover from a period of alcohol and cocaine abuse. Born a Jew, Mr. Kudlow was baptized a Catholic by Father McCloskey in November 1997.
“Father John stood with me through some of the worst moments of my life, and he never let go, no matter how bad it looked for me,” the economist now says. “Hes a saint, a very low-key thoughtful and caring priest.
“He was always calling me to talk to me quietly, to give me some words of advice and spiritual reflection, to reinforce my faith in Jesus, to prod me to go to Mass and continue my readings. He would constantly visit me when I was recovering in treatment centers.
“Father John is known for helping people in spiritual need. He has an uncanny instinct for showing up when people are searching for a spiritual connection. He is someone whose advice is absolutely vital in my life. Hes always calling or e-mailing to stay in touch.
“Hes an international pastor. He has an enormous web of contacts, friends. Early in our relationship, he never said ‘I want you to be a Catholic. He was much more interested in starting up a friendship. When I told him I was searching for God, he tried to fill in some of the cracks with some readings or some prayers or some thoughts, but the initiative to move toward the Catholic Church was mine.”
Its no wonder, he adds, that attendance at the information center has boomed since Opus Dei assigned Father McCloskey there two years ago.
“Id like to unleash him on Capitol Hill,” Mr. Kudlow says. “A few doses of Father McCloskey, and well turn this country around. Hes an old-fashioned evangelical pastor. In some ways, the Catholic Church has fallen short in its evangelizing mission, and I think Father John is awakening that.”