My name is Tom Leopold and I’m a comedy writer (Seinfeld, Cheers, Will and Grace...). I am a Jewish comedy writer, although I always felt saying that was kind of redundant. So much of my humor — practically all of it I suppose— comes from who my people are, what they’ve been through and how they were able to turn it all on its head and find the funny side, even and especially if there was none to find.
I know it sounds odd, but I always liked Jesus. I was never “deep” enough to wrestle with the concept of his being the son of God. For me he had this James Dean-Bob Dylan-daring rebel-hero “thing” about him. Once in a while, I did wonder, had I been nearby when Jesus walked among us, would I have had seen him for who he said he was? And, if so, would I have had the courage to say “Hey, everybody says we’re waiting on the Messiah. Well, the ‘wait’ is over!” Fast forward two thousand years later and I’d follow Jesus anywhere if he’d have me.
Come Easter I’ll still be a comedy writer, but a Catholic one. I consider my upcoming baptism a blessing. One that ranks right up there with the day I met my wife or the birth of our two daughters, to say nothing of having the good fortune to have made a living in a business that I love.
So here is a flashback of how I became Catholic.
We’re a couple of years into my youngest daughter’s life-threatening eating disorder. It also happens to be Christmas Eve and our girl is under doctors’ care at still another rehab center. This one is in the Arizona desert. By the time we had come to this point our ravaged little fourteen-year-old had been too ill to attend any but three weeks of her 9th grade school year, she had spent days locked in a psych ward, and both she and I were nearly run over by a cab as I tried to catch up to her after she’d bolted from a doctor’s office.
So, we’re in the desert, it’s Christmas Eve and my wife, our oldest girl (17) and I are decorating our hotel room with Christmas stuff from the only store still open in the little desert town, the Dollar Store. We are all Jewish, but for some reason we’ve always celebrated Christmas too. There was something kind of sacred about the silly little tree we bought...It reminded me of the tree Charlie Brown dragged back to his gang.
The doctors would only let us have our daughter for Christmas Day, so the three of us went to bed early, each trying not to let the others know how sad we were that one of us was missing. Lying there in the dark that night was the closest I have ever come to breaking — not breaking down, breaking! It’s a whole lot easier to hold your heart together when it’s you who does the suffering, but when it’s your child and nobody can fix her...Well, it would take more than a comedy writer to say it how it feels.
I was praying before the thought dawned on me that I was praying. Maybe begging is the better word... “Please God, give me even the smallest sign you’re up there, I just can’t make it alone!”
The next morning we’d arranged for our girls to go horseback riding, and my wife and I took a walk in the desert. Out of nowhere this cool old guy drives up in a motorcycle he made himself...It had antlers for handlebars and the guy looked like the old Marine that he turned out to be. He skidded up next to us, practically popping a wheelie, and started talking. I’m a New Yorker, so I just figured he was just one more weirdo...But the guy had this great intensity and a mysterious charisma.
He started a long monologue about how he was once married to a woman named “Shepard” and how his present wife brought him to Christ at the age of 33, and all the while he keeps nodding his head towards me and saying to my wife “This one knows what I’m talking about!”
Here we were, on Christmas morning in the desert, and this odd old character is throwing the word “Shepard” around along with the number 33. “Wasn’t Jesus a ‘Shepard’ to his flock and wasn’t he 33 when he was crucified and isn’t this day, his birthday?!” As I’m thinking of this, the old guy keeps telling my wife that I know what he means! And the weird thing is I do, kind of, know what he means! Not what he’s saying but what he means...
My cell phone rings. It’s our kids. They’re through with their ride. Without even knowing who’s on the other end of the phone our desert prophet says “Hang up, they’re fine!” I hung up. After the exhaustion of all we’d been through, it felt nice to be, well, led!
He finally stops talking, guns his engine and peels off only to stop a few yards away, turn back to me and say in a voice somewhere below a whisper and above mental telepathy that “God is watching you!” It wasn’t a threat, it was a reassurance.
There were more things like that. Coincidences? I no longer think so. But the biggest and most rewarding was the day I ran into Father Jonathan Morris.
Thirty-eight years ago I went to a psychic down in Nolita (North Of Little Italy) who pretty much predicted my entire career path...I wasn’t even a writer at the time. Out of the blue I had this idea to reconnect with him and, to my amazement, he remembered me right away. Our daughter had gotten a little better after her last treatment but was falling back again even though she was now strong enough to attend school. I thought I’d go visit Frank (my old psychic) just to check in and tell him how right he had been about all that’s happened to me and to ask if he saw a recovery for our daughter. Frank told me to bring her to him. A few days later we did. Walking up the steps to Frank’s townhouse, a car pulls up right in front of us and out steps Father Jonathan Morris. I recognized him from a picture in his book, “The Promise.” The book dealt with grief and I was getting a great deal of comfort from it. Suddenly the very same, kind, face was right before me.
“Are you Father Morris?”
“Your book is on my bed stand.”
He had already started towards me. He had his hand out.
Why I said what I said next I will never know.
“ Father, do you think you might have a few minutes to talk to me sometime?”
I had seen and admired Father Morris many times on television but thought he lived in Rome. He smiled, holding on to my hand and said: “You can find me right here.” He turned and pointed to Old Saint Patrick’s Church. It was as if I hadn’t even seen the church until he pointed to it. He had just started as parochial vicar there...True to his word he found time for me and room for my family in his prayers. He even met with our daughter.
I don’t think there’s room now to describe all I found “right here” at Old Saint Pat’s. The minute Father Morris took my hand I knew I’d be a follower of Christ. Does my daughter still suffer? She does, we all still do, but now I feel the Lord’s grace. We are not alone.
Tom Leopold is one of the elect in the Archdiocese of New York. He has participated in the RCIA program there and will be baptized during the Easter Vigil. Special thanks to Kate Monaghan.