Jon was born on April 17, 1963, in E. St. Louis, Illinois, the youngest son of Joe and Judy O’Guinn. His parents were divorced when he was still a toddler, so he moved with his mom and siblings from place to place throughout his childhood, attending eight different grade schools in eight years.
High school finally brought some stability, and Jon excelled at performing, both in the Little Theater and the National Forensic League. Although he didn’t think he would be able to attend college, he earned a scholarship to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. After two years, he transferred to Illinois State University, hoping to follow in the footlights of famous ISU alums, such as Judith Ivey, John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, Terry Kinney, Laurie Metcalf and Gary Cole.
In 1985, while performing in the Illinois Shakespeare Festival, he went to see a newly released movie, Mass Appeal. Jon had played the role of the seasoned pastor in a college play and wanted to see how Jack Lemmon handled the role on film. Two lines spoken by a seminarian in the movie jarred Jon’s memory back to an idea he had entertained nine years before. Jon didn’t remember the lines from the play (although they were in the script and Jon, in character, had to have heard them in every rehearsal and performance). That night, those lines wouldn’t leave his thoughts. The first: “The most important thing in life is helping other people.” The second: “What you believe in has got to be more important than what other people think of you.”
Awakening to a vocation
He called the priest who had been the associate pastor at St. Mary’s in Belleville, Ill., when Jon was a 7th grader in the parish school, and to whom he attributed his “awakening to a vocation.”
In 1976, that “awakening” was quickly drowned when he was one of 12 boys to receive a part in the St. Louis Muny Opera’s production of Oliver (starring Vincent Price).
After that, he wanted to be an actor. Jon performed in nearly every play that my busy high school theater department produced, and went on to get his undergraduate degree in theater from Illinois State. But not long after seeing Mass Appeal, Jon found himself at Saint Meinrad seminary in Indiana.
The highlight of his theological studies was a semester he spent in Jerusalem, when Jon had the opportunity to experience first-hand the history, majesty and tragedy of the Holy Land.
Jon’s road to the priesthood took more than a few detours, but he was finally able to celebrate my ordination as a priest for the Diocese of Belleville on June 5, 1993.
In July 1996, Jon became pastor of St. Theresa of Avila parish in Salem and St. Elizabeth Seton parish in Kinmundy. The parishes encompassed nearly all of Marion County, with about 400 registered households. The Salem parish had a small elementary school, and Jon was responsible for providing pastoral care to residents of four area nursing homes, two prisons and two hospitals.
Despite many successes, Jon faced entrenched interests. By publicly questioning the value of investing in an elementary school that required 80 percent of the parish’s financial resources while serving only 5 percent of parishioners, he unleashed vociferous opposition. Some people were cruel; a few were kind; most were indifferent. The bishop’s response to Jon’s request for a new assignment: “Jon, you need to develop a thicker skin.”
After nearly seven years of ministry, Jon felt burned out. He didn’t want a thicker skin. He wanted to feel at home in the skin he was in. If the price for remaining in ministry was developing an alligator-like hide that was impervious to insult or injury, then Jon didn’t want it. Because it also meant becoming less empathic, less capable of connecting with people when they were most vulnerable.
Jon embarked on a three-month sabbatical at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery near Charleston, S.C. The brothers operated a poultry farm with more than 30,000 chickens. During his sabbatical, Jon joined the monks in their routine of prayer and work, spiritual reading and meditation. And, he estimated, over the course of three months, Jon personally handled about 1.3 million eggs.
That sabbatical helped him realize that he was experiencing a crisis of soul. Jon began to feel more “at home” with himself — to feel courageous enough to stand in his own truth and come to terms with a few of his demons. He began to develop the heart and the nerve to confront some painful realities about the priesthood.
Jon returned to his pastoral assignment, but soon realized he would have to make some tough choices about his ministry. After working hard and long to implement the reforms of Vatican II, he began to sense that the whole universal effort was being blunted and, in some cases, betrayed. Even within his diocese, he began to suspect that true dialogue and collegiality were being resisted, and that the experiences and frustrations of the priests and people in the pews were not being respected or represented when decisions were made. In his work on the Priests’ Senate and the Formation of Priests Committee, Jon tried to speak with forthrightness and candor, yet he grew increasingly disappointed and even depressed at the utter futility of working within these approved channels. He was weary — simply going through the motions while his heart and energy were elsewhere.
Moreover, Jon found the burden of living a public life too heavy to bear. His relationship with ambition was a tortured one, at best. The closer he drew to anything bright, the more wary he became and weary he felt. He was isolated, unsupported and utterly frustrated. While he deeply loved being a priest and ministering as a priest, Jon realized that the relentless public scrutiny, criticism and judgment that are the necessary consequences of living such a public life had taken an unanticipated personal toll. It was time to leave active ministry.
In January 2001, Jon started a six-month leave of absence, moving to Dallas to take a job at a Catholic publishing company. There, he began working on an adult religious education series and enterprising other projects to benefit Catholic parishes nationwide.
New life, new love
But in June, Jon met Cliff, who was ministering as a priest of the Diocese of Dallas. Jon knew that if he wanted to embark on a life together with Cliff, he would have to enter a profession that wouldn’t depend on his priestly past or his Catholic connections.
As Jon considered his options, he reflected on his love of language, truth and public service. Although he still wanted to serve the public, he wanted to do so in a less public way.
Jon had worked as a columnist and features reporter when he was an undergraduate. At Saint Meinrad, he regularly wrote for and eventually edited the monthly student journal, Suggested Readings. As a priest, Jon wrote a weekly column for the parish bulletin, composed many documents for the Southern Illinois Association of Priests, and, of course, wrote daily and Sunday sermons. So as he considered a new career, one that would allow him to serve the public in a less public way, the choice seemed clear: journalism.
He entered the graduate journalism program at the University of North Texas in January 2002, and was soon awarded a Mayborn scholarship. In October, he began working as a copy editor at the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth. Jon graduated in August 2003 and took a job as a copywriter in the Advertising Department at The Dallas Morning News the following December.
Eventually, Jon took on more writing and editing duties, becoming the Special Sections Content Manager, responsible for an array of newspaper sections, custom publications, including magazines and niche products. Building on his experience as editor of Pulse, a medical-specialty magazine for nurses and allied health professionals, Jon became managing editor of CURE, the nation’s most widely distributed publication focused on advances in the diagnosis, prevention and management of cancer.
Many of Jon’s old friends have wondered how he could go from the priesthood to journalism and, more specifically, explanatory journalism, when the professions seem so very different. But Jon doesn’t see the move as a career change. Rather, it’s a career development. Like priests, writers also use language to inform and inspire, to educate and serve.