via the Diocese of Lansing
by Marybeth Hicks
It’s 4:05 in the afternoon and the familiar introduction launches from the studios of Ave Maria Radio: “With the New York Times in one hand and the Catechism of the Catholic Church in the other, Al Kresta is ready for conversations of consequence.”
What follows next varies from day to day, but one thing is certain: Whether discussing the vagaries of pop culture, dissecting the ramifications for people of faith of a current political initiative or deconstructing a modern-day opponent to Catholicism, host Al Kresta is there to fulfill a mission.
In fact, while Al’s career as a broadcaster, journalist and author have gained him national recognition in both secular and religious media, he describes himself first and foremost as a missionary.
In 1997, Al joined Ann Arbor’s Ave Maria Communications, then a fledgling apostolate of Domino’s Pizza founder Tom Monahan. “Tom brought me on as an editor with the goal of getting a Catholic radio station off the ground and, eventually, of creating and syndicating our own original programming. He also wanted to assure that the apostolate was self-sustaining.”
By 2003, “Kresta in the Afternoon,” the flagship drive-time program and its host were leading the apostolate toward independence and growth.
But the effort was taking a toll on Al, both physically and spiritually. “I had been feeling like I was in a spiritual logjam,” he recalls. “I was flagging. I had been working nonstop, I wasn’t taking care of myself, I was run down, and I also had this sense that I was in need of some suffering to just clear things out and open up again.”
Suffering would come. In February 2003, Al, his wife Sally and one of their sons contracted a strep infection that manifested in Al as necrotizing fasciitis, commonly known as flesh-eating bacteria, an agonizingly painful condition that affected his left leg.
“It was my leg or my life,” Al says. “The doctors came in and told me they had to do surgery and I had 20 minutes to decide to do it, but if I didn’t do it, I’d be dead within two hours.”
Al went into surgery not knowing if he would be an amputee. When he awoke five days later, his daughter confirmed the amputation had been necessary.
“I wanted to use this opportunity for suffering well,” Al says. “I didn’t want to lose my leg, but I had strong consolation in the fact that this was intended to achieve something in my life that, for whatever reason, couldn’t be achieved in any other way.”
Within weeks of his surgery, the popular radio host determined to use his recovery as a period of intense prayer and contemplation, even removing the cards and flowers sent to him by countless friends and listeners in favor of an environment that enabled him to focus on Christ.
“I didn’t want to miss out on the monastic experience of focusing on what God wanted from me,” Al says. After five additional surgeries and 10 weeks in the hospital, he resumed his duties and began to adapt.
This wasn’t the first time Al was presented with a period of suffering that resulted in a deeper relationship with the Lord. “Ironically, everyone assumes that losing your leg has to be the worst thing that can happen to you,” Al says. “Losing a leg is something people can understand because everyone can imagine what it would be like to become disabled. But in this experience I was able to be a happy warrior. What I went through in the mid-1980s was much, much worse.”
Al refers to a three-year bout of depression that twice landed him in a psychiatric hospital. Triggered by anesthesia he received in 1982 for a simple surgery, Al experienced flashbacks to a dark and frightening encounter with drugs as a teenager.
At the time, Al worked as a manager for a chain of Christian bookstores. “I felt like a sham. I didn’t feel I could minister to others because I wasn’t able to say I believed it. Yet I knew I had an obligation to support my family,” Al recalls.
Though he felt abandoned by God, Al took the advice of a friend to attend a silent retreat at Abbey Gethsemane in Kentucky. There, living in the quiet rhythm of the monastic community for four days, he finally reconnected with God and began to feel the black cloud of depression disperse.
“Over the course of those days, I had three distinct impressions, one in a dream, and two while praying. As simple as it sounds, all of my pain and suffering began to take on a meaning to me. ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ became meaningful to me. I realized, if Jesus himself has this experience at the moment when he was the most dependent upon his Father, then the experience that I had been going through for the past few years, when it felt like God was utterly absent, showed that the Christian story is fully aware that these things happen. If Jesus can say ‘My God …’, that opens the door to the idea that this whole thing had meaning for me,” he recalls.