He’s surprised as anyone that he’s a Catholic.
Greg Walgenbach has taken quite a spiritual journey during his 40 years – a journey that culminated in 2011 when he became Catholic and when his wife returned to the Catholic Church.
While it’s commonly assumed that someone who switches religious denominations once or more during his life is rejecting the beliefs he once held dear, Walgenbach – director of the Office of Life, Justice and Peace for the Diocese of Orange – sees things differently.
“I never felt I was having to reject something I had held onto strongly,” says Walgenbach, who was raised a Baptist and became an Anglican priest before embracing the Catholic faith. “I really only felt I was called and invited into a more expansive understanding of the whole big picture of Christian tradition, theology and prayer.”
As director of the Diocesan ministry, Walgenbach oversees a network of ministers who advocate for public policy that affirms a consistent ethic of life on such issues as abortion, the death penalty, euthanasia, human trafficking, immigration, fair trade and poverty.
It’s a career that complements Walgenbach’s passion for ministry that began in middle school. Instead of just showing up every Sunday to worship, Walgenbach, who grew up in Los Angeles and was involved in youth ministry in the Baptist church, always was drawn to be a disciple of Jesus and put his faith into action. He says he always knew that his life was to be centered in the church.
At UC Irvine, where he majored in history and graduated in 1997, Walgenbach served in the evangelical Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, leading Bible studies and organizing service projects. For a few years, he was full-time campus minister at UCI and then at East L. A. College while attending Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
During his final year of working on his master of divinity degree, Walgenbach, needing to complete an internship, was placed at the Community Baptist Church of East L.A. He ended up serving there as a pastor for three and a half years.
Gradually, says Walgenbach, “I began to be challenged in my own spirituality – in my own understanding of my faith and where I fit into this bigger picture of the Christian story.”
For several years dating back to his pre-college days, Walgenbach says he had wrestled with the Catholic tradition – what it was and what it meant to him. This process, in part, eventually led to him leaving the Baptist faith and becoming a member of the Anglican Episcopal Church. After leaving his Baptist congregation in L.A. amicably, he ended up serving as an Anglican priest at an Episcopal church in Bakersfield.
But Walgenbach’s spiritual journey wasn’t over.
“I’m a big fan of the work of the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, who uses a term, ‘Epistemological crises,’ which refers to when we have periods of difficulty placing ourselves in a story that makes sense, or a story that we thought we had made sense in some ways but doesn’t account for certain pieces,” Walgenbach explains.
“You undergo a shift, and you get out of it by finding a new narrative that makes sense of the beliefs you had before and shows you how to view things moving forward.” Divisions within the Anglican Church weren’t helping.
“Part of what was stirring in me was a real lament over the brokenness of the church, the divisions in the church and its members’ seeming inability to stick together and work through conflict and to really seek truth,” Walgenbach recalls.
So in 2011, he and his wife and four children relocated to Orange County and became Catholics.
“One of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church was its fundamental unity around the magisterium, the pope, the bishops, our tradition, and our understanding of the sacraments,” Walgenbach says. “We have these very tangible and material habits and sacraments that bind us to one another in very real ways, despite the fact that we’ve had many ongoing disagreements and arguments that have taken place over decades and centuries.”
Walgenbach served as a youth and young adult minister at Santa Clara de Asis in Yorba Linda. He and his family now are parishioners at St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church in Fullerton.
“There’s always a sense of restlessness on our journey from here to heaven, but certainly being a Catholic does feel like home to me now, and I’m very grateful to be a part of this wonderful universal faith and fellowship and church,” Walgenbach says, adding that while faith is something very personal, it never should be kept private.
“We have a very privatized understanding of faith in America, but it is also something that should be deeply public,” Walgenbach says. “To be a disciple of Jesus is to entrust yourself in the community… We need other people in our lives to really help us along out journey, and I’ve had some wonderful people along the way whom I have trusted who have helped guide me.”
As Walgenbach reflects on his spiritual journey, he says, “At the end of the day, it’s about Jesus for me — knowing Jesus more deeply by means of the mediation of the Church, the scripture, the sacraments, the saints, especially our Blessed Mother, and all the wisdom acquired by the Church throughout the centuries.
“The same Holy Spirit speaks to us today and leads us into faithfulness.”