Al Kresta: Missionary Looking Inward, Then Outward
September 27, 2013
Outlining today’s “Dangers to the Faith”, author and radio host urges Church renewal and rebuilding
By John Burger
What will it take to save Western culture? What will it take to turn things around in an America that seems to have turned its back on its Judeao-Christian foundations?
Al Kresta doesn’t see it happening—at least not until the Church changes first.
Kresta, the long-time host of the popular “Kresta in the Afternoon” talk show, is the author of Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents (OSV, 2013). Though the new book focuses largely on external threats—cults, scientific materialism and atheism, historical revisionism, secularism and consumerism—Kresta also touches on internal dangers, such as the complacency of some Christians. He concludes the 303-page book with a call to personal holiness.
“Often a life well lived can do more to illustrate the truth—‘adorn the doctrine,’ as St. Paul tells Titus—than the most brilliant words,” he writes. “The lives of the saints, but especially your becoming a saint, may be the most neglected tool in the missionary/apologist’s work bucket.”
In this Year of Faith called by Pope Benedict XVI, and in the wake of the 2013 conclave, in which a new Pope’s name echoes the call to “rebuild My Church,” Kresta and Ave Maria Radio are inviting Catholics to “Rebuild the Church, Bless the Nation.”
One must precede the other.
“In the late ‘70s I think there was a window of opportunity for Christians to potentially change the culture,” Kresta said in a wide-ranging interview with Catholic World Report. “I think that opportunity’s passed. I think the window has been shut. Right now we need to build the Church. I don’t want to say ‘forget the nation,’ because we should continue to oppose same-sex so-called marriage. We have to continue to work for the protection of unborn life. We have to continue to work to make sure the poor have adequate educational opportunities…. The Church itself needs to be rebuilt, and that’s what John Paul II was talking about with the new evangelization. Benedict, I think, was suggesting the same thing. And I think Francis is … about a more authentic, consistent, coherent Church.”
Kresta said his next book might be about how Catholics “undermine their own witness in the world, how we as a community are sending real mixed signals. We’re not bearing real truthful witness to who Christ is.”
Long and Winding Road
At 62, Kresta has spent a lifetime searching for that Christ, coming to know him better and finding ways to make him better known. He regards himself primarily as a missionary, whether he is on air, producing Catholic programming, organizing conferences, writing books, or simply being a husband, father, parishioner and neighbor.
“Al Kresta is a broadcaster, journalist and author who is, first of all, a missionary,” says his bio page at Ave Maria Radio, where he serves as president and CEO.
“The point of the show and of Ave Maria Radio is to make more and better Catholics,” said Nick Thomm, executive producer and news director of “Kresta in the Afternoon.”
It was not always thus with Albert Kresta. His early life and detours through drugs, the New Age movement and other distractions are documented in Surprised by Truth: 11 Converts Give the Biblical and Historical Reasons for Becoming Catholic (ed. Patrick Madrid, 1994, Basilica Press).
“Back then, kids would take a flight at anything, just to experience it,” said Kresta’s mother, Alice, in an interview.
Kresta grew up in a Catholic family in the New Haven, Conn., area and showed early promise, excelling at a Catholic high school. His mother recalled how some of the foster children she took in at the time would climb on Al’s back—and how he took a special liking to them.
But he was 14 at the time, and the cultural winds of the 1960s soon changed him. He played in a rock band and was arrested twice for possession of illegal drugs, which he also was using, and he ended up with a two-year suspended sentence.
He stopped going to church and wound his way through strange religions, pursuing gurus in various parts of the country.
The young Kresta got serious while studying at Michigan State University.
“Somewhere after March of 1974, I was at the Michigan State student union reading [Pope John XXIII’s] Journal of a Soul and [C.S. Lewis’] Mere Christianity, and somewhere along the way—I hadn’t really associated with any Christian community yet.… I must have been asking, ‘What am I going to do with my life?’… And I just had an experience sitting there that all I wanted to do with my life was to disseminate this perspective on things,” he reminisced in the CWR interview. “What I wanted to do was to ensure that what I was realizing there in reading Lewis and John XXIII—that the picture of life, the world they were describing, I wanted to propagate that … because I was absolutely shocked when, as an adult, I began to realize what Christianity was and realize that the Christ of the New Testament was different from the Christ of the New Age movement and realize that there was a good, sound, historical basis for the Christian faith.”
He graduated from MSU with honors and spent 18 years in Evangelical Protestantism, even attending seminary, becoming pastor of an independent non-denominational church and hosting a popular radio show in Detroit, “Talk from the Heart.”
He could talk from the head quite well, too. His voracious appetite for reading and learning and his thoughtful assessment of things awakened, or perhaps reawakened, a sacramental view of the world.
“It increasingly dawned on me that our ‘spiritual’ experience was inextricably tied up with matter,” he explained. “Matter really matters. Creation, Fall, the calling of Abraham with the promise of offspring, … the Incarnation with the Virginal conception, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost and Eucharist. None of these takes place in an exclusively ‘spiritual’ realm. All participate in some way with material cause and effect. The whole drama of redemption is played out in what New Agers and neo-gnostics would think are embarrassingly gross physical terms. Modern American religion, not just Christianity, however, anchors the ultimate act of faith or communion or self-realization in our ‘heart,’ entirely invisible and immaterial. Evangelicals stress faith alone. New Agers stress some kind of discovery of one’s divinity.”
“He’s a pursuer of truth. What bothered him was the disunity in the church,” said Sally Kresta, whom he had married in 1977. “He was always upfront and honest with people in the church. In a sermon he gave on one of our Communion Sundays, he spoke about how communion was more [than what their church offered]. I was sitting in the congregation and a light went on. I knew there had to be more to all of this. I got really excited, and he got really criticized by people in the church, saying, ‘That is just way too Catholic.’ From that point on I just fell in love with liturgy and anything I read on Catholicism I fell in love with it.”
The Kresta ended up leaving for the Catholic Church, a move that shocked their long-time friends, Steve and Janet Ray.
“I should have caught on because at his house he had built a little prayer chapel in the basement,” said Steve Ray, the author, tour guide and producer of the video series The Footprints of God: The Story of Salvation from Abraham to Augustine. “I noticed a little altar with candles and kneelers and icons.”
Ray tried to talk Kresta out of it, but a year later he and Janet followed the Krestas into the Catholic Church.
Kresta to Go
Enter Tom Monaghan, the former owner of Domino’s Pizza and founder of the Ave Maria Foundation.
“I used to host a First Friday breakfast every month here at Domino’s Farms [an office park in Ann Arbor, Mich.], and we’d bring in pretty prominent speakers,” Monaghan said in an interview. “For some reason we brought in [Al Kresta]…. I was impressed with his talk, and he was feeling the same way I felt, that we totally dropped the ball on teaching the faith in our schools and in our seminaries. He had just come back into the Church, I believe, and was on fire.”
The Krestas had plans to move from Detroit to Ann Arbor, primarily because of a vibrant Catholic community surrounding Christ the King, a personal parish founded by the Diocese of Lansing, Mich., to serve the Charismatic Renewal. When Monaghan asked Kresta to run Ave Maria Communications and edit a newspaper called Credo, the Krestas felt confirmed in their plans.
Kresta recalls the conversation he had beforehand with the pizza mogul-turned-philanthropist: “I said, ‘I want to make sure I get kind of a general picture here of what you’re asking.’ There were a lot of little details. I said ‘You’re basically asking me to come to Ann Arbor to be a missionary.’ He said, ‘Yeah, that’s what I’m asking.’”
Kresta in the Afternoon was launched in 1997 and has been one of the most talked-about programs on Catholic radio. It is heard on over 220 stations and Sirius Satellite, and guests have included Christopher Hitchens, Jesse Jackson, John McCain, Gloria Steinem, George McGovern, Chuck Colson, Gary Bauer, Cardinals John O’Connor, Avery Dulles, Francis George and Raymond Burke, Jack Kevorkian, and Mother Angelica.
“He did one of the best interviews I’ve heard on radio, period, with Father Alberto Cutié,” said Patrick Coffin, host of Catholic Answers Live. He was referring to the high-profile priest of the Archdiocese of Miami who decided to leave the Catholic Church in order to marry a woman he had been dating. He then published Dilemma: A Priest’s Struggle with Faith and Love (Celebra, 2011).
“It was absolutely compelling because Father Albert wanted to talk about his book, which essentially justified his decision to leave the priesthood and marry his paramour, and Al was relentless,” Coffin recalled. “He was direct and unrelenting in trying to get the story behind the story. Every few minutes Cutié would say, ‘Well Al, can we get back to the book?’ and Al would reply, ‘I just quoted from the book. I want you to tell me a little bit more about why that is in the book.’ He didn’t let him off the hook; he kept his feet to the fire. But it was done in a way that accorded Cutié some respect. The stage was set so that he knew that he was being asked a direct question and it was up to him to answer it properly. It wasn’t a ‘gotcha’ moment. It was just an artfully-conducted interview.”
Such an approach would not surprise Kresta’s wife, Sally, who remembers how he witnessed to her when they were fresh out of college, leading this fallen-away Methodist to make a firmer commitment to Christ.
“He had a way of explaining things that made the faith more plausible than anyone I’d ever heard,” she said. “One way he approached it was to ask you to frame what you thought, and then he’d ask questions to lead you down the road to find out how inconsistent your reasoning was. He’d help you to come to that yourself. … He was always not pushy, just made himself available. He doesn’t corner people to win an argument.”
Crises…and Kresta’s Response
It’s been 10 years now since Kresta developed the life-threatening illness that led to the amputation of his left leg. The cause was never determined, but Kresta had contracted necrotizing fasciitis—commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria—and were it not for the emergency amputation, Kresta’s tombstone might today read “1951-2003.”
“My daughter was there to tell me what had happened, so Lex said to me, ‘Dad, what did the doctors tell you before you went into surgery?’” he recalled. “I said they told me it might be my leg or my life and I should be open to losing a limb if necessary. She said, ‘Well they had to take the leg.’
“It was not good news, obviously, but I was alive,” he said, adding that severe depression in the early 1980s, requiring hospitalization twice, was much worse.
As a new amputee, “His attitude was very upbeat,” Kresta’s mother, Alice, recalled. “I think he knew that if I’m down the whole family’s going to get down.”
Added her husband, Joseph, “And being religious, I think he knew he was going to go someplace better than this.”
But Heaven, as they say, can wait. Kresta, perhaps, must still go through his purgatory. By all accounts, he’s dealing well with it. He gets around in a wheelchair, traveling to conferences and other events throughout the country. He said he has a new prosthesis and intends to take some time off from work to learn how to adapt to it.
“Somebody who’s been through such an experience—most wouldn’t be as busy as Al. In Al’s case, there’s something deeper and larger motivating him, to do everything that he does,” said Catholic author Russell Shaw. “There’s another motive at work, that is, a powerful spiritual commitment. He has a vocation and sees what his vocation is and embraces it. It involves a deep love for God and the Catholic Church.”
Ray Guarendi, the Catholic psychologist whose show The Doctor is In is produced by Ave Maria Radio, added that for Al Kresta, the faith is not an intellectual exercise. “He can very well explain the faith, but to him the faith is a way of life,” Guarendi said. “Al’s goal is not to have knowledge. His goal is to use that knowledge to strengthen the faith of others…. I appreciate his ability to get to the crux of something very quickly. I don’t have to explain my perspective to Al. He explains what you mean, he locks into it. He’d make a good therapist.”
That ability is apparent to his listeners, and it comes through in Dangers to the Faith, a thoroughly-annotated book that showcases Kresta’s command of history, current events and contemporary culture.
After all, Kresta’s seen a lot of life, having lived in the latter half of the tumultuous 20th century, coming of age during the turbulent 1960s and rediscovering the faith as recent popes were leading the Post-Council Church to a deepening of the faith and a flowering of the lay apostolate. Kresta has been a leading light in one area of that renewal.
“He’s like a pied piper, Tom Monaghan said. “The Ann Arbor area is maybe one of, if not the, number-one orthodox Catholic stronghold in the U.S., and I’d say it’s largely because of him more than anyone else. Not only the radio show, the talks he gives, the books he writes, the conferences he puts on, and of course the programs … he produces a lot of programming, six hours a day of Catholic radio programming that goes all over the country and beyond…on people’s computers, Sirius. Just amazing what this guy has done, in spite of what he went through with the leg.”
Steve Ray gushed about “the number of people he’s impacted for the truth on a level that a lot of people don’t…. He does it on an intellectual level as well as a deeply spiritual level.”
For both the Rays and the Krestas, the impact of apologetic and Catholic media apostolates that have sprung up is apparent right where they both spend their most precious hours: the family.
“I think parents raising teenagers through the 1960s, I think that may end up being, historically speaking, one of the most difficult periods in American history because everybody was blindsided by the changes in the culture,” Kresta said, pointing out that parents lacked the kinds of family support groups that exist in the Church today.
Kresta’s own family has a mission statement taped to the refrigerator door, which encourages everyone to “live lives which demonstrate the existence of the triune God through lives of service, prayer, and study,” he said. “That’s the kind of the ambience that we try to build into the family culture.”
And it’s lived out. “They turned out to have that same missionary drive,” Sally Kresta said. One son spent time in Sudan, helping to build Catholic schools, another has been on mission trips to Mexico, while a third is working for a year with inner-city youth in Detroit.
“We started this experiment… to raise good kids to love the Lord and be Christian families,” said Steve Ray. “We were just discussing that yesterday, how nice it is to see how our kids are following in our steps as the same passionate, pro-life Christians, homeschooling and raising their kids the same way.”
The Church in recent decades has emphasized that the family is a “domestic church” in which parents are the primary teachers of their children in a school of life and love.
Though Kresta didn’t mention it in the interview, his campaign to “rebuild the church, bless the nation” may already have begun—right in his own home.
John Burger is a veteran Catholic journalist and editor.