Medjugorje, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Tuesday 3rd September 2019
Sabrina: Father John, could you please present yourself? Who you are and everything linked to your priesthood, your story?
Fr. John: My name is Father John O’Brien, and my middle name is Terence. I am a priest of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles who loves to pray, teach, read, write, film, surf, skateboard, hike, play team sports (baseball, football, and volleyball are favorites), garden, sing, act, and dance, among many other passions I pursue, thanks be to God who encourages me.
I was born in Los Angeles, California on July 16, 1966 of my beloved parents, Joan and the late Terence O’Brien, who died on June 24, 2013. I was baptized on August 7, 1966 and was raised in a good, and very loving Catholic family by my dear parents. We went to Mass every Sunday with my five other siblings and prayed together as a family. My parents have always been a great inspiration to me and my brothers and sisters. I have a huge devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, and my confirmation name is Francis, which I chose when I was twelve years old because of my devotion to him. I was confirmed on February 13, 1979, ordained as a deacon on August 12, 2017, and ordained as a priest on June 2, 2018.
I attended Cathedral Chapel Catholic School, an elementary grammar school in Los Angeles, for eight years, and had a wonderful experience. During those years I started altar serving, and it was through those experiences as a young altar server that my vocation to the priesthood began, because when I reflect on those times, when for years I assisted the priest and served the people during Mass, I felt very comfortable and a peace in the sanctuary in a cassock and surplus near the altar. I liked helping set up for Mass, lighting candles, processing in the with priest and other servers, being so close to Our Loving Lord Jesus, the Eucharist, in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and assisting with tasks in the sanctuary after Mass.
After elementary school I went to Loyola High School of Los Angeles, a great Jesuit school that was founded in 1865. My family has lived in Los Angeles since 1912, and both of my grandfathers, my father, my brothers, an uncle, and three nephews also have graduated from Loyola High School. As my love for Jesus and the Mass continued during my high school years, I was open to the possibility of God calling me to either be a priest or to be married in the Church someday. So, I was open to God’s will, but such serious vocational decisions seemed far away from me at the time.
After Loyola High School I matriculated at the University of California at Berkeley, where I majored in English Literature and received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1988. I also studied acting at Berkeley and performed in Shakespearean theater at the university through scene study performances and one staged production; in January 1988, I auditioned and was cast in a role for a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure that was performed in a theater on campus for two weekends. When I was auditioning for Measure for Measure, the casting directors knew nothing of my spiritual life or that I was Catholic because Berkeley is a public university, and I did not know them. Guess what part they gave me? I was cast as Friar Thomas, a priest in a monastery. That’s not the first time I’ve played religious role; the first time I was ever in a play was in the fifth grade at Cathedral Chapel School. That year our teacher directed us in a Biblical New Testament play, and I was cast as Jesus. That was so much fun, to play Jesus in 1977. Among many scenes, I got to raise Lazarus from the dead, which was so easy. I just had to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” There he was, Lazarus, alive again. It made us so happy as kids. Plays are so fun, and I love playing religious roles, and look forward to playing more of them! Getting back to Berkeley: it was at the university in May of 1988, right before I graduated, that I committed to pursuing an acting career later in life; I felt strongly that God was calling me to be an actor for Him and His glory, and not for human fame, power, or money. In 2003, when I was older, I knew the time was right for me to become a professional actor, and so I went for it. Within a year I became of member of the Screen Actors Guild by being cast in a very small role in an ABC show called Eyes. The casting director who chose me for the part was named Jesús! I was so glad to have my foot in the door of Hollywood through that little role. Berkeley was also the location—of all places—that my vocation to the priesthood took on a very mature discernment process when, in the fall of 1985, I enrolled in an Eastern European history class that was taught by a Catholic professor, the late, kind, and very funny William Slottman, who encouraged me to write a paper on a German Jesuit saint, St. Peter Canisius, because he knew I was Jesuit educated at Loyola High School.
That paper assignment gave me an opportunity to reconnect with a Jesuit priest, Fr. Peter Togni, who had taught me at Loyola High school when I was a fourteen-year-old freshman and who I hadn’t seen for many years. By 1985 Fr. Togni happened to be studying theology in Berkeley at the Jesuit School of Theology near the university. So, I contacted him with a phone call and let him know about my St. Peter Canisius paper, pleased to report that I was writing a paper at Berkeley on a Jesuit saint! He said he had a biography of Saint Peter Canisius and offered to loan it to me. That gave us a reason to meet at a café to catch up and talk about St. Peter Canisius. After our meeting at the café, Fr. Togni and I took a walk through the campus. At one point, as we strolled along, Fr. Peter asked me, “John, have you ever thought about being a priest?” I immediately said, “Yes, I have.”
I had girlfriends in high school and at Berkeley, and really enjoyed having good relationships with them and going on dates with them. It wasn’t always so clear that I was called to be a priest because I love women and was attracted to the Sacrament of Marriage as well, and I still am. Well, I am ecstatic to be married to the Church and that as a priest I am another Christ, and therefore, another Groom like Christ, and thus the Church, and the Mystical Body of Christ in the Human Race, is my beautiful and mysterious Bride, who I love so much!
Sometime after my reconnection with Fr. Togni in Berkeley, I remember asking him, “How will I know whether God is calling me to the priesthood or marriage?” He said, “God will show you the way. He will make your vocation, either marriage or priesthood, more obvious to you in time, and one vocation will become more attractive.”
Many years later, I was speaking with my grandmother, Carolyn, about it because I was still discerning between marriage and the priesthood, and she said: “John, you have to pray about it!” Well, I had been praying about it, so, I kept praying about it even more!
After Berkeley, I began working in the magazine industry, for a Catholic youth magazine called Véritas, and it was during that time when I began seriously thinking about entering a seminary.
By the spring of 1992 I visited and applied to Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland; I was accepted, entered and finished a year of pre-theology for a religious society: The Society of Our Lady of The Most Holy Trinity, who sent me there to study. I was preparing to become a missionary, but at the end of that year I felt like God was telling me to wait, to be open to marriage and to pray about it more. So, I left the seminary, and I was very happy and at peace about that decision, because I was following God and not what other people thought I should do. When I left the seminary, I remained open to the priesthood, and told God in my prayer that if He was really calling me to be a priest, it would happen someday, and that was true!
Sabrina: So, they were not upset with you when you said, “I need to take more time to think about it”?
Fr. John: Well, my spiritual director, the late Msgr. Hugh Phillips, was shocked by my decision, but he accepted it. He also said something beautiful to me. He said, “John, I really see Jesus in you!” What he said really stayed with me and helped me later when I was sure I was being called to be a priest. A former spiritual director of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, who had become a pastor of a parish in New Jersey, listened to my story, after I told him I wanted him to hear it and my reasons for leaving the seminary. After listening to me he said, “I usually don’t say this to men who want to leave, but I agree, you are making the right decision.” I knew that was true because I had prayed and discerned with God so much about it! After I left Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, I moved to New York to continue my career in the magazine industry.
Sabrina: So, after you left the seminary, where you spent a year, you worked on different magazine staffs, artistic magazines, right?
Fr. John: Yes, artistic and literary magazines. In July of 1993 in New York City I cold called The New Yorker magazine and pitched myself to see if they were hiring. They said yes, in two months a position would be available. Two month later I went in for an interview, and a week later was hired for that position! It was miraculous. So, I was a member of the staff of The New Yorker for about three years after the seminary. It was an awesome experience. I met really great people there and learned so much about writing, editing, and good stories.
Sabrina: What did you like about New York and why did you like it?
Fr. John: I’m from Los Angeles so I like big cities; I felt connected to New York in that sense. I like museums, and New York has some amazing museums. I enjoy seeing a lot of people in the streets, walking all over versus Los Angeles where we spend so much time in cars. There are also many wonderful, historic Catholic churches in New York City. I worked seven blocks from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, where I loved being able, during my lunch break, to go and visit the church, to say prayers or go to Confession or Mass after work. I also really liked to get away from New York City and explore Long Island, to go out to eastern end, to the Hamptons and Montauk, which kind of remind me of Malibu in Los Angeles County, where I often go to the beach and surf.
Sabrina: So, after New York you went back to LA and continued working in the magazine industry?
Fr. John: Yes, I returned to Los Angeles where I was an art associate at Architectural Digest magazine for four years. During that time, I was recruited and hired by Miller Publishing to be an art director for one of their magazines, Where magazine; it was during that time that 9/11 happened. Ultimately that tragic event was a catalyst that led me to the priesthood. It made me reflect deeply on how short life is and where God was really calling me. Six months later I left the magazine industry to begin working as a freelance artist and actor. I had a lot of downtime as an artist and actor, and that downtime became prayer time. Eventually all that prayer time, and my devotion to the Divine Mercy, led me to thinking of being a priest and going back to the seminary.
Medjugorje was a huge part of my vocation and certainly helped me discern my calling as a priest. This is my third visit here. The first time I came as a pilgrim here was in August 1988.
The first time I heard about Medjugorje was in the spring of 1986 through my mother; she took me and my brother Michael to dinner one evening in Berkeley, and soon after we sat at our table her face began beaming with joy and she said, “The Blessed Mother is appearing to six children in a village called Medjugorje in Yugoslavia!” I immediately believed what she was telling me, and was eager to learn more, which I did from her that night with open ears and an open heart.
What my devotion to the messages of Medjugorje did for me was that they made my relationship with Jesus and Our Blessed Mother much closer. Every book about Medjugorje I could find, I would read; I read book after book. I also started to go to daily Mass and began praying the rosary for the first time in my life. I developed a desire to pray the rosary as much as possible. I had a devotion to Mary as a child and a young man, but Mary seemed more distant than Jesus. Suddenly I knew she was very close to me, like Jesus. It is an awesome feeling, to have such an intimate relationship with the Mother of God. Like all good and holy relationships, they just keep getting better and better.
Sabrina: So, you were touched by Medjugorje. For two years, you were following what Our Lady was asking from us without having been here. So, it was love without seeing!
Fr. John: Yes! Then finally I came to Medjugorje and saw Apparition Hill and Mount Krizevac. Yesterday I was speaking with my mother on the phone and she reminded me that in 1988, before our pilgrimage group went up Mount Krizevac, some of us, including my two brothers, were asked to carry bags of cement to the cross because it was going to be repaired with that cement. So, I carried a bag of cement up Mount Krizevac thirty-one years ago and left it up there for the repairs. It is a nice memory!
Sabrina: Did you meet the visionaries and the Franciscans when you came in 1988? Who did you meet?
Fr. John: During my first pilgrimage in 1988 I heard Fr. Jozo speak at the parish church in Tihaljina, and he also prayed over me there. I saw four of the visionaries—Marija, Vicka, Ivan, and Jakov—and listened to them as they spoke to pilgrims through translators in front of their homes. I didn’t actually meet any of them, but I did have a nice encounter with Ivan, which happened early one evening; I was walking by myself through a field and realized that I was coming close to Ivan’s house.
He happened to be alone in his front yard. No one else was around us. I walked toward him, and he walked toward me. I waved to Ivan as he got closer to me. We stood there smiling at each other for a few moments, without saying anything, and then I waved goodbye. That was the first time I had a personal encounter with one of the visionaries. We couldn’t talk to each other because we didn’t know each other’s languages, however, many years later, Ivan came to my parish in Santa Monica, California. After he spoke at my church, St. Monica Church, and had an apparition with Our Lady there, I had a chance to speak with him in English. Ivanka also came to California at another time, and I met her and spoke with her as well, thanks to my friend, Lidija Kunza, who introduced us.
Sabrina: What did you like about that sharing with the visionaries?
Fr. John: When I speak to the visionaries or hear them speaking, I experience the peace and love of Jesus and Mary in a profound way. There is such deep peace in Medjugorje, and joy also!
Sabrina: And normal people!
Father John: Normal people! The visionaries were so young when it all began. I remember reading that the visionaries asked Our Lady why she picked them, and they said Our Lady said was because they were normal and faithful.
Sabrina: When was the second time you came?
Fr. John : It was in April 1989. My mother, Joan, organized that pilgrimage and the first one I went on in 1988. Both times my mom and I went with a group from Los Angeles, which included some family friends. In 1988 a few of my sibling were there, my sister, Mary, and my two brothers, Michael and Patrick; on that pilgrimage we were present for the Feast of the Coronation of Our Lady on August 22, 1988. That night Ivan had an apparition on Mount Podbrdo. Our pilgrimage group walked up together. Some people were carrying candles, and it was raining, until Mary appeared to Ivan. During Mary’s apparition with Ivan she gave a message that encouraged young people to start prayer groups. The next day, after the English Mass in St. James, I pulled my rosary out of my pocket and noticed that what had always been silver-colored links had turned to gold-colored links. My friend, Susie Brier, saw my rosary miracle and said, “We should start a prayer group back in Los Angeles!” So, we did, and that prayer group still meets every week!
Sabrina : In your parish?
Fr. John : In the beginning we met at Susie’s parents’ home that was within our parish boundaries in Los Angeles. It has moved to a few different locations since then. Currently, the prayer group, as we call it, meets in Santa Monica, California.
Sabrina : So, this is a prayer group that has always met in people’s houses?
Fr. John : Yes, the prayer group has always met in people’s houses.
Sabrina : Did your parish priest know about this prayer group?
Fr. John : Yes.
Sabrina : So, the second time you came to Medjugorje was not so long after the first time. And then you waited 30 years?!
Fr. John : My first trip to Medjugorje was my first trip to Europe. My second trip to Europe was also to Medjugorje. There were other places I really wanted to see in Europe, and since my first two Medjugorje trips, I have been to many holy places in Spain, Italy, Ireland, England, and France. I went on other pilgrimages in Europe, such as Lourdes. I have a very strong devotion on Our Lady of Lourdes and have since my childhood; I’ve been to Lourdes three times now. I have had a desire to return to Medjugorje. I kept thinking “I’ll go back to Medjugorje eventually.” Here I am: 30 years later.
Sabrina : 30 years is a long time. Tell me about, because it’s very unusual to meet a priest that became a priest at 51 years of age, who had the experience of being a professional actor! What was the feeling of being an actor? Because you had an audience, you had to not be shy, you had to talk in a way that people understand, articulate…
Fr. John : It was a thrilling feeling! I love to act to inspire people and help them come closer to God! I love great Catholic plays and movies that explore the lives of the saints and other very good stories that help people to grow closer to God.
Sabrina: As a former actor and today as a priest, do you think that the art of making movies can be a way of evangelization today? Of spreading God’s Word in a time where people can easily watch something and read less?
Fr. John: Yes, absolutely. I know from experience how much watching such movies inspire me and help me to pray. If I can be a part of a film as an actor, director, and filmmaker, to make movies that lift people up and bring them closer to Jesus and Mary, I would love to be part of them, especially in this super visual world!
Sabrina: You have friends that are actors. Some of them are probably not Christians but some of them are probably Christian actors. So, what’s the difference between the two ways of thinking of these friends?
Fr. John: Well, Christian actors are motivated by the love of God, to give glory to God. NonChristian actors are good people too; most people, Christians and non-Christians want to tell good stories. I think there’s beauty in that, God is everywhere. Jesus is close to actors even if it seems like He is far from them. He’s always, I believe, trying to come into the hearts of all people.
Sabrina: Today you are a priest. If someone came with a great story and told you “Fr. John, would you please play this character in this great Christian missionary story.” For example, to play the friend of Mother Theresa in some nice movie. Would you say yes?
Fr. John: Yes, I would! I believe that I could make time for it. I’m a parish priest and I have vacation time, so I could make movies during those times and also during my weekly days off. Now that I am a priest, God’s plan for me makes so much sense. I still love to act, just like I still love to play volleyball, paint, garden, hike, sing, write, etc. Some people think I used to be an actor and say to others when I am with them, “Fr. John used to be an actor.” To which I say, “I’m still an actor, and I always will be!” Then they usually say, “Oh, then you can play a priest.” “Yes,” I say, “I can definitely play a priest, and I really want to play priests, but I can also play many other roles!” I can play a mailman, a professional baseball player, a lawyer, a doctor, a homeless man, an atheist, a Jewish man, etc. I would play any role in a story that was told in a good, moral way for the sake of souls and to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, just as I always have as a Catholic actor before I was ordained.
Sabrina: But for example, when you are now a priest, you have a different kind of audience. No more actors, you are really Jesus when you celebrate the Mass. But still, you have the skills you learned to be able to articulate well, to be able to give a message of something that the Lord uses!
Fr. John: Definitely! I feel that my acting background has helped me very much to be more comfortable speaking in front of a lot of people. It’s real life. I enjoy being myself and pray that Jesus is present in all the words I preach. My life as an actor helps me with homily preparation as well, because as an actor, you prepare, memorize lines and practice! I don’t memorize my homilies, but I do plenty of Scriptural research and plan a general outline and then preach without notes during Mass. I’ve also done a lot of improvisational acting, which helps me be spontaneous when I am prompted by the Holy Spirit.
Sabrina: But you have this ease of sharing and expressing. Do you think that it could be useful for some priests to be helped in this? Because sometimes you have priests that are so incredible when they are sitting with you but then they have more difficulties to say it in front of people. Is acting something you think would help them move and talk and express, to be able to say the depth of their thoughts?
Fr. John: Yes, I think that would be helpful to any priest. Preaching well requires a lot practice and real-life experience as a preacher. A priest become a better in time and with time.
Sabrina: For example, to have a group of priests and you teach them how to articulate. Does it exist?
Fr. John: Yes, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles does provide homily training for priests. In my seminary, before I was ordained, we had many homiletics classes on how to proclaim God’s word and preach well, how to be good storytellers who make eye contact with congregations. Jesus was a storyteller! When we read the Gospel, we can make it come alive and paint a picture for people like they’re watching a movie.
Sabrina: Yes, because I remember for example St. John Paul II, he used to be an actor when he was young! And it is true that sometimes, he would do this thing and you could see that he would play with it! I remember when he was old and weak, he came to the Youth Festival (JMJ) and he took his cane and he did something Charlie Chaplin-like and it was so fun!
So, you came to Medjugorje this third time. We are in September 2019. You came toconcelebrate at the wedding of the daughter of your dear friend, Lidija, that was so active in spreading the message in the United States! What did you think of a Croatian wedding? Is it something that surprised you if we compare to the ways that it is done in the U.S.?
Fr. John: Yes! They were some surprises, but the Mass is the same everywhere. I concelebrated the wedding Mass with Fr. Petar; we don’t speak each other’s languages, except for a few words, but we were able to come together and say Mass together in a beautiful, meaningful way in Croatian and English, with no rehearsal!
Sabrina : In Siroki Brijeg, such a symbolic church!
Fr. John: Yes, and it is so beautiful! That was the first time I ever met Fr. Petar! We actually met ten minutes before Mass began. I think the similarities of weddings in Croatia and the U.S. are stronger than the differences! There are some cultural Mass elements which are unique in this country and some of the wedding reception customs are different from the U.S.
This wedding was unique because the groom, Brendan, is American, but not of Croatian ancestry, and his bride, Lidija’s daughter, Andrea, is Croatian American. Their wedding was a blend of American Catholic traditions and Croatian Catholic traditions. The customs weren’t strictly Croatian, right?
Sabrina: It’s true! You said that you were an actor of improvisation, but you see, in Medjugorje, you don’t know what is going to happen! So many surprises!
Fr. John: That’s true and like in improvisational acting, you must be quick on your feet! When a surprise comes to you, you have to respond without hesitating.
Sabrina: I learned something very interesting about you, and it’s that you are a surfer! I’m amazed at surfers! Tell me, what does it mean for you to be a surfer! Do you still surf even when you are a priest now?
Fr. John: I do! I went surfing about 10 days ago, in Malibu, California! Although my parish is a forty-minute drive from the coast, I have time to go surfing on my days off, and I love surfing! I’ve been surfing since I was a kid. It’s so therapeutic being in the ocean and I feel close to God while surfing. It is so healing and fun to be up on the board, surfing and gliding on the water, with the wind, sunshine, and the Spirit of God everywhere. Sometimes the surfing conditions are perfect and other times it’s windy, choppy, and not that great, but then there are those days when all the natural elements come together in a beautiful way and it’s just wonderful!
Sabrina: After you have come here after 30 years, when you go back to your parish, are there elements of what you have lived in Medjugorje during this third trip that would give you the desire to start something more linked to Medjugorje – now that Medjugorje as a pilgrimage place is authorizd officially?
Fr. John: Yes! We only have scheduled confessions in our parish on Saturdays. I know other parishes in the States have confessions daily. Here in Medjugorje I have seen confessions daily going into the late hours in the night. I would love to increase the amount of times that confessions are offered for our parishioners, and that would be one way of connecting: offering confession times during the week. Right now, my parish only offers Mass and sacraments in English, although I have administered sacraments and led prayers in Spanish and French because I have studied and speak those languages, and I use those languages in confession when necessary. I would love to have Masses in other languages. We have a lot of Filipino parishioners, and some Spanish and French speaking people.
Sabrina: Can we hope that you come back before 30 years?
Fr. John: Yes. I want to come back. Hopefully soon because if I wait 30 years, I’ll be in my eighties! I want to be able to climb to the Krizevac!
April 5, 2020 update by Fr. John O’Brien, Associate Pastor at Incarnation Catholic Church, Glendale, Archdiocese of Los Angeles:
Now—during this coronavirus pandemic, as we are in quarantine—is the time for us as a Church to reflect on what it means to be Catholic. Going to Mass is a huge part of being Catholic, but the purpose of Mass is to be sent from it to spread the Good News wherever we go and to be Jesus to others, beginning with our families. As we are all in isolation, we priests are urging people to make often Perfect Acts of Contrition, receive Jesus in Spiritual Communion, watch livestream Masses, pray the rosary, read the Bible, pray, be kind to others, etc. In many places in the United States and Europe, we have been spoiled with vast numbers of liturgies that have been available to us. In some rural villages in third world countries, priests visit once or twice a year to administer Sacraments. It is a great blessing to be a priest at this time, to think of new ways to reach out to the faithful and console them through phone calls, livestream Masses, online posts, and films, like my new one, Where Is Jesus? by Palm Branch Productions.
— Father John O’Brien
(article from the May 2020 issue of the official journal of Medjugorje Glasnik Mira)
Article Interview Father John O’Brien in PDF