Some of the potential “world-changing” ideas in Catholic evangelization began as scribbled notes and diagrams…
How I won big by losing the $100,000 OSV Innovation Challenge
“Well, challengers, this is it. After nine months of hard work, your pitches are complete and the judges have made their decision. Who will be crowned champions? I will read these off in no particular order … well, they’re alphabetical. The first winner of the 2020 OSV $100,000 Innovation Challenge is … Catholic Sprouts!”
I exhaled my deep breath and inhaled again quickly. My ministry is Strong Catholic Dad — “S” comes after “C,” and there were two $100,000 grants remaining. “And the next champion is … Eden Initiative!”
Yikes. One more to go. “S” comes after “E,” so this still could happen. Father, your will be done.
“And the final champion for 2020 is … Juan Diego Network!”
I slowly exhaled. “Well, Lord, your will is now very clear. I still love you. I am still in your boat.”
The next day, I was talking with my son and partner, John-Andrew, the genius behind Strong Catholic Dad’s website and marketing. “Dad, you know it came down to the judges. It always does. Their priorities, their interests, their interpretations of the competition goals. We just as easily could have won.”
Little did he know … I did win. I finally won. And I won big.
Let me explain.
Yearning for success
At St. Anthony Catholic School in Fresno, California, I was an average student — until the last quarter of every year. That’s when I would turn it on and make the honor roll. In sixth grade, Sister Marie commented that she was surprised when I had gotten an A on a second-quarter test. She then said words that etched themselves in my mind and forever changed my educational path: “Michael, I don’t think you’ll do that again.”
I paused. The defiant little Mikey inside of me, the one who always played around and wouldn’t settle down until the fourth quarter, boiled. I shot back with my eyes, “You wanna bet?!”
I went straight home and studied. I aced the next test, to which Sister Marie replied, “That was a fluke.”
Little Mikey made another self-promise, “I’ll show her!” And I did. I made the honor roll that second quarter, and the third, and every quarter thereafter until I was valedictorian of the eighth-grade class.
Sounds like I had become a winner, a champion, right? Yes and no. I did go on to be a salutatorian of my high school and was admitted to the University of Notre Dame.
On the outside, everything looked shiny. But something was amiss. My determination won good grades, but my worship of the idol of success was taking its toll. Late nights. Friendships cut short. Everything was laid down upon the altar of the almighty “A.”
My plan? I’d get a great job, marry a great girl and be successful. Happy.
I did get a good job and became successful at it. I married a wise woman who, with her family, slowly enticed me to truly embrace our Catholic faith. That was good. But I was serving two masters. Success in the world was the first. My relationship with God, my wife Maria and my kids were the second. As Christ warned, serving two masters doesn’t work.
Most often, I served success. I put in long hours chasing her. Maria quietly challenged, “When will you put us first?”
It got really bad when I started into ministry. Maria felt she had no leg to stand on when my disordered pursuit of ministry goals put her at odds with what appeared to be God’s will.
The bigger fire
There were some big ministry successes. Kudos poured in for my “on fire” talks as well as invitations for more speaking engagements. I was arriving! Yet, there was a bigger fire I had started, and it was burning my marriage and my fatherhood. At some point, Maria’s exasperation broke open, “You are the only dad these kids have!”
What she didn’t say was, “I am the only woman in your life!” Because success was the other.
I was unfaithful to Maria as I wined and dined success. I gave success my best hours, my full attention … my heart. And I broke Maria’s. And my kids’. And God’s.
At the time, our marriage was painful. I thought Maria was more the one who needed a new perspective. She pleaded with me to go to marriage counseling. I consented, though I felt embarrassed since I had been “successful” at speaking to parents about how to be holy, happy families. Fortunately for Maria, my children and me, I was starting to realize that maybe I wasn’t walking the walk of family ministry within my own family as I thought. Sadly, I had been losing at the very thing I was preaching.
Christ spat on the desert ground beneath me, made mud and rubbed it in my eyes. It hurt. I cried. The tears started to flush out the dirt. And I began to see shapes, then clearly defined … people. I saw my bride. She was beautiful, and wounded … by me. I saw my kids, too. Their sense of self-worth, of being the apple of daddy’s eye, had been badly bruised. How could I have done this? How could I have been exacerbating the very problem I was trying to solve through family ministry, by sending my own children into the streets hungry, looking for love, because I was busy “loving” all those wounded people whose own parents had starved them?
I had to start over. I had to start at the beginning. My spiritual director, seeing my desperation, said, “Michael, love, like water, runs downhill. Start with your prayer life, intimate conversation with Our Lord. You will fall in love with him. Then, you will fall in love again with Maria and each of your kids. It will get easier. You won’t have to force yourself to keep your priorities of God, spouse, kids and then everything else. You will want to do it. It will be the desire of your heart.”
It has taken time. Years. But not for the reasons I expected. My heart started to soften rather quickly. But the same was not the case for Maria and the kids. They needed to see the changes. They needed to feel, deep in their bones, that I loved them — really loved them, delighted in them, cherished them.
Fast forward to the OSV Innovation Challenge. For nine months, I labored to “accelerate” my newly founded Strong Catholic Dad ministry, to get the word out to dads to live the priorities of God, spouse and family. I endeavored to hand dads the amazingly cool, super engaging tool that I had created to help dads build a fulfilling relationship with their own kids and pass on the Faith.
However, now I did that within some very clear boundaries — the boundaries I was preaching. Instead of laying my life and the life of my family on the altar of success, I laid it on the altar of God’s will, expressed through a rightly ordered prayer life, time with Maria and continued focus on the kids.
The weekend before the big $100,000 challenge finale, I prepared by … spending it in St. Louis visiting my son, Daniel, his wife, Lydia, and our first grandchild, Henry. Maria and I, along with our four daughters still living at home (our other six kids are in college or on their own), relished the goodness of chubby cheeks, outdoor grilling and family hikes. This contestant wasn’t preparing for the big contest, he was winning it.
Thirty minutes after the announcement of the judge’s picks for the $100,000 grants, Maria came into my office to check on me.
She spoke comfortingly: “You answered the judges’ questions well. I am disappointed you didn’t win. How are you feeling about it?”
I sighed and said calmly, “I am OK with this. I told God that if he wanted me to win, then I wanted to win. If he didn’t want me to win, then I didn’t want it.”
Maria searched my eyes. And she found there some integrity. She perceived that I wasn’t just talking the talk. Then she spoke intentionally: “I am impressed with how you handled this whole challenge. You didn’t become laser-focused and brusquely push us out of the way to grasp the golden ring. You even spent all last weekend with us in St. Louis.”
I smiled. My heart was melting. She looked at me, wondering what was happening within. I teared up, soaking in the balm of her words.
Now I was the one to speak purposefully: “Maria, I did win. I won big. I’d lose that $100k in a heartbeat to win your approval.”
Michael O’Rourke is the founder of Strong Catholic Dad. He writes from Indiana.