A faith that won’t quit

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Sometimes faith is easy. When things are going well, it is easy to believe that God is close by, answering prayers and holding us near. But what about times of trouble - when the doctor gives bad news or, as in recent events, a natural disaster sweeps us off our feet?

According to John Janaro, an associate professor emeritus of theology at Christendom College in Front Royal, those times are the ones where we can learn to rely on God all the more. He learned this through personal experience after years of struggling with mental and physical health issues. With the help of prayer and a community of believing friends, he has grown in his faith through it all and he thinks others can do the same.

Growing up Catholic

Janaro was born in New York City on Jan. 2, 1963. He lived there for nine years with his parents before they moved to Pittsburgh, where he went to high school.

Although he grew up Catholic, Janaro says he did not feel fully invested in his faith until he was 16, when he visited his older brother at Christendom.

"When I first visited my brother, I found something I'd never encountered before - a community of people in the Church for whom Jesus Christ was something real and the most important thing in their lives, and who at the same time had an enormous amount of fun being together."

It was during that visit that Janaro first realized that Christianity is meant to be more than just an ideology, but something that is lived.

Two years later, Janaro found himself back at Christendom as a student. He pursued a double major in theology and history and got serious in his quest to learn more about the Faith. After college, Janaro studied theology as a lay student at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C., where he earned a master's of divinity and a licentiate in sacred theology. He also studied at the Gregorian University in Rome for a year.

During graduate school, Janaro found it difficult to adjust to life outside of the devout bubble he had found at Christendom. Realizing the importance of finding a Catholic community, he became involved with Communion and Liberation, a lay ecclesial movement in the Church. It was there that Janaro was finally able to develop a mature faith.

"Really my faith became important to me in a mature way while I was in grad school," he said. "In adulthood, I could really say, 'Gosh, I can't imagine living without my faith, living my life without Christ, living without praying every day.'"

During this time, Janaro was able to meet with the founder of Communion and Liberation, Father Luigi Giussani, during a trip to Italy.

"I spoke with him about my life and he asked me, 'Why have you been studying theology for all these years?' I said, 'Well, I might become a teacher someday,' and he grabbed my arm and looked me in the eye and said, 'Be a teacher. You will be a great teacher. You must be a teacher,'" Janaro said. "It was very striking to have this told to me by someone who founded a movement with 100,000 people in it all over the world."

When he returned from that trip, Janaro began putting out résumés around the area for theology teaching jobs. When a position opened at Christendom, he took the job.

He started teaching in 1994, doing editorial work on the side - working as the director of Christendom Press and the editor of the Faith and Reason Journal. In 2000, he was promoted to associate professor and he served a three-year term as chair of the school's theology department.

His personal life was flourishing as well. In 1996, he married his wife, Eileen, whom he had maintained a long-distance friendship with for years. In 1997, the couple had their first child.

"A lot of stuff was happening really fast," Janaro said. "It was a very vigorous life and very stressful in a lot of ways, with a lot of things to do. I loved it very much, but at the same time there was something else - a parallel to all of this."

The struggles within

While his family was growing and his career was blossoming, Janaro began struggling with health issues that had been hiding under the surface for years. The stresses of finishing graduate school and starting a new career spurred a mental health crisis. He became overwhelmed with anxiety, depression and obsessions - symptoms that he had struggled with since childhood.

The year he took a job at Christendom was the first year he decided to get psychological treatment and for the first time, he found himself on medication. He's been on them ever since, periodically switching prescriptions to maintain effectiveness.

"This is a reality in my life. It's a reality in a lot of people's lives," Janaro said. "A lot of people who seem happy and normal are struggling with these kinds of problems, even crippled by them."

Then, in 1999, Janaro fell down the stairs. With the fall came chronic leg pain that wouldn't go away. After years of tests and treatments and a resurgence in symptoms after another fall in 2002, he received his true diagnosis in 2004 - acute Lyme disease.

Lyme disease is a tick-borne illness that can result in problems with joints, organs and the central nervous system. Janaro believes he must have been infected in 1988, when he spent a lot of time hiking and at one point contracted a strange flu. Since the symptoms went away and the disease was not identified for years, it had worsened and become much more difficult to treat.

Because of his health issues, Janaro took a sabbatical in 2004, returning to Christendom in the fall of 2006. In 2007, his symptoms were triggered again because of stress following the birth of his fifth child, who had a seven-month stay in the neonatal intensive care unit after being born two months early. Eventually, the increased intensity of his health issues resulted in Janaro retiring at age 48 so he could change his lifestyle and improve his health.

An ongoing faith

Through all his physical and mental health struggles, Janaro says he has remained steadfast in his faith.

"I've come to find in the midst of these circumstances that everything I believe about God is still true - even more true," he said. "God has not failed me. He continues to sustain me."

During this time, Janaro began writing poetry and reflections about his faith, which he shared with his family and friends. Eventually, Janaro decided to combine the reflections with his own story as a book, Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy, which was published by Servant Books last year.

"I thought to myself, there are so many people who are suffering who have no voice, and I have a responsibility to speak for them because I can," Janaro said. "It kind of inspired me that I have to talk about this - not just the Lyme disease, but the depression and the (obsessive-compulsive disorder). I have to talk about them honestly and make people aware."

Janaro believes it's important for everyone to know that mental illness is a disease and not a character flaw. It should not be shameful to consider medication or therapy to manage it.

"When I wrote it, I hoped that it would be a comfort, a support and a strengthening for people who are sick in various ways, and also a help to deepen the awareness of people who don't have any particular remarkable problems in these areas. Everyone has problems somewhere," Janaro said.

For those readers with health problems like his, Janaro suggests an increased dedication to prayer.

"Prayer is at the heart of life and we need to take that up," Janaro said. "People who are living with problems say they can't pray and that's something I can't believe is true. Wherever you are, you can start praying. If you are mad at God because He made you sick, if you even feel like you hate God, you can start from there.

"I would tell anyone in suffering to turn that suffering toward God, to turn that pain and that loneliness into a prayer."

As for Janaro, he is feeling healthier these days and thinks his Lyme disease might be in remission. Still, he knows there's a probability that one day he will relapse and find himself physically and mentally "in the hole" again.

"I know it could happen, and if it does, I'm more at peace with that possibility because I know there's a way to live, even like that, that is not meaningless," he said.

In the meantime, he counts on the support of his family, friends and colleagues, who enrich his faith with their lives.

"If I was just being Catholic and reading my books, I might be pretty convinced intellectually, but I would feel pretty disarmed in the world and in my own experiences," Janaro said. "And yet, I'm a part of a body that suffers together and prays together and helps one another. And Christ is at the head of that body and He's really here. It makes a difference."

Get the book

John Janaro's book, Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy, is available at servantbooks.org


© Arlington Catholic Herald 2011