Imagine being 25 years of age, earning over $500,000 per year, and having every luxury you ever dreamed of. Such was the life of Friar John Sweeney, once a bond portfolio analyst for the First Boston Corporation and now a friar of the Franciscan Primitive Order. On Wednesday, Oct. 25, Friar Sweeney, at the request of the Newman Catholic Association, described how his life took a radical turn after a spur-of-the moment trip to the holy Catholic site of Medjugorje in former Yugoslavia.
While he dresses in a simple robe with a rope belt tied around his waste, 37-year-old John Sweeney should not be underestimated. Behind his chest-length beard and closely cropped hair is a man who had the resiliency to survive being the youngest of eight children in a suburban Long Island home. He attended Catholic school, but soon grew tired of the rigors of organized religion.
The “incredibly boring masses,” and “bad folk music” drove the friar away from Catholicism by the time he was 14 years old and even led him to question God’s existence. His college and high school life were devoid of religion. “College was like Animal House,” Sweeney joked, but he nonetheless triple-majored in economics, accounting, and finance and graduated from the University of Virginia.
He applied his expanding knowledge of all three topics while working as a bartender during his spare time. Within four years of graduating college, Sweeney was well on his way to earning millions of dollars working in the Wall Street bond market.
“[Bond trading] was a kill or be killed environment, and I loved it,” he continued in a voice still tinged with a faint Long Island accent.
The constant drive to earn more and more money became all-consuming for Sweeney. Instead of worrying only about his own financial gains, however, he also became obsessed with the gains of others. He lived in a cutthroat environment where people thrived not only on their own success, but also on the failure of others. “If your interest is money and power, it will be all-consuming because it becomes about more than money—it becomes about ego,” Sweeny said.
It was his desire to land a client from a competing broker at First Boston that started Sweeney’s spiritual journey. Over lunch, the broker, a deeply religious man, randomly recited the tale of Medjugorje, a town where six youths claimed to have seen, heard and touched the Virgin Mary. Sensing that something was missing from his life, Sweeney decided to visit the town. Just four days after hearing the story, he was on a plane to Yugoslavia with his sister – also very religious – and the other broker.
After spending a week observing prayers and ceremonies in Medjugorje, Sweeney was convinced that God existed and that he needed to return to his Catholic roots. The bad music and boring masses suddenly appeared to be the answer to a void he felt in his life; Sweeney believed it was time for him to follow the Virgin Mary’s message and practice greater faith and penance.
Upon his return to the United States, Sweeney started going to church daily, but continued his life as a high-flying bond salesman as well. “You’re in a serious battle for your soul,” Sweeney remarked.
In a fast-clipped tone reminiscent of his days on the trading floor, Sweeney was quick to quip that he was divided between “girls and the gospel of St. John.” Prayer continued for several months with Sweeney appreciating Catholicism more and more each day. But, soon he began to sense a change within himself.
“I knew I was being called to something, and I knew it was Jesus [who was calling],” Sweeney explained.
After several weeks of fruitless searching for what Jesus wanted, Sweeney opened the Bible, looked up toward heaven and asked Jesus to give his life direction. He picked a verse out of the Bible, and it has changed his life since: “Jesus said, ‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in Heaven. Then come, follow me’“ (Matthew 19:21). Sweeney read the verse and resolved to change his life accordingly. He resigned from his job and gave away all of his savings to various charities.
He purchased a one-way ticket to Europe and spent the next year backpacking, surviving as best he could. He concluded his journey in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where he studied with a brotherhood and then took his vows after a year of intense studying and prayer.
But in the midst of civil war in Bosnia, Sweeney decided that he no longer belonged in as organized a community as the brotherhood. He moved on, battling through the streets of cities under siege until he found a way back to Chicago, then the South Bronx and finally to Massachusetts, where he received permission from the local brotherhood to found a hermitage in Vermont.
The two friars, three “novice” priests, and six other members of Sweeney’s hermitage live in complete poverty, devoting their lives to helping the poor in any way they can. Sweeney made sure to point out that he’d “like very much to work with the poor and among the poor,” not as an administrator. Sweeney’s calling is to give his love, skills and utmost devotion to the poor around him.
Upon the conclusion of his talk, Sweeney opened the floor to questions from the audience. When asked whether or not Catholics could follow another calling besides assisting the poor, the friar had no objection.
But, he warned, “I pray that the Holy Spirit can lift the sin of selfishness, because it is in everyone.” While he declared that his struggle to eliminate selfishness is only just beginning, the friar does believe that once the process has started it is almost unstoppable. “[Love] is a living funnel: as more comes in, more wants to go out,” Sweeney said.
After two hours of incredible storytelling and answering questions on topics varying from love to whether or not he misses the beer and steak dinners with his Wall Street buddies, Sweeney left his audience dumbfounded.
“Friar John Sweeney’s talk was dynamite. I found his tale of conversion from fast talking trader to fasting friar utterly captivating, not to mention inspiring. The world, dare I say Williams, desperately needs more John Sweeneys,” said Dan Sullivan ’01.
As for his final evaluation on his own life, Sweeney declared that “I think my life is much richer now. I have a much greater capacity for joy.”
But, he still has progress to make in life and goals to achieve. “What you need [in life] is a very firm determination to be a saint. You must [always] want to be a saint.”