A Hollywood ministry of presence

Back when Father Don Woznicki was studying for the priesthood for the Archdiocese of Chicago, he developed an interest in the entertainment industry and its effect on culture. The interest was so strong that he considered leaving the seminary to work as a producer. He ultimately stayed, but his interest in the world of film and television remained and has begun to bear fruit in his ministry.

Now, 14 years after being ordained at age 41, Woznicki is in his fifth year of the incardination process in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, and this year he began serving as administrator of Christ the King Parish in the heart of Hollywood.

“We’re right at Melrose and Vine,” he said. “I look out my bedroom window and see the Hollywood sign.”

A winding road

For Father Woznicki, the road to priesthood had lots of twists and turns. He started to drift a bit from his faith as early as high school and stopped going to church altogether when he was in college, studying chemical engineering at Purdue University in Indiana. In the 1980s, he worked a co-op job in Houston.

“That was the Bible Belt, and these Bible Christians would challenge me,” he said. “One guy asked me if I was saved, and I didn’t know. I said I was Catholic. He asked if I knew if I died that day if I would go to heaven, and I didn’t know. He said if I didn’t know that, there was a problem with my relationship with Jesus.”

Father Woznicki began his career in Chicago, living the life of a 20-something young professional. It was his girlfriend’s sister who brought faith back into his life, inviting the two of them to a Bible study with her.

He found the Scriptures a powerful influence, and while his relationship with his girlfriend didn’t last, his relationship with the Lord grew. He joined a nondenominational Christian church that was popular in the neighborhood, and he began to think he might be called to ministry — in a Protestant church.

“I actually thought I had a mission to reach out to Catholics because they were not saved, and they needed to be saved,” he said.

But when he asked a Bible study leader for information on how to talk about Jesus to Catholics, what he was given was a copy of Karl Keating’s “Catholicism and Fundamentalism” (Ignatius, $17.95), a book of Catholic apologetics. “I don’t think he knew what he gave me,” Father Woznicki said.

Reading that, and reflecting on what he learned, brought Father Woznicki back to daily Mass at the parish across from his home. He even started a Bible study that was frequented by neighborhood residents.

That was when the questions started.

Finding his ministry

“People would ask me, ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’” he said. “I just thought, I’m a young guy, I go to Mass — of course they’re going to say that.’”

When he visited New York and ended up in an impromptu meeting with Msgr. Michael Wrenn, an authority on religious education who helped translate the Catechism of the Catholic Church, Msgr. Wrenn asked whether he’d thought about the priesthood. A week later, his pastor, soon-to-be Chicago Auxiliary Bishop Edwin M. Conway, asked the same question.

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Finally, he joined a group for post-college men considering the priesthood, but was so unsure that he didn’t tell anyone.

“I didn’t even tell my family,” he said. But after a few months, he was ready to try.

Now, from his post in Hollywood, Father Woznicki finds himself poised to engage in new forms of evangelization.

“The Church needs to have a more dedicated ministry of presence to the entertainment industry,” he said, “not coming in with a judging spirit, but meeting them where they are and walking with them as they create.”

When a Paramount Studios production wanted to film on church grounds, Father Woznicki said he allowed it and kept the church open for Eucharistic adoration. He said people would “just wander in here to pray” as a result. And this is what he envisions for his ministry.

“The plan is to run the chaplaincy for the entertainment industry from this parish.”

Michelle Martin writes from Illinois.