Paul Zsebedics could never bring himself to throw away the T-shirt with a picture of Christ’s face that his mother gave him years ago.
Zsebedics was barely a practicing Catholic when he agreed to chaperone a group of high school students on a weekend retreat at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He wore that old T-shirt.
In a metaphorical and literal sense, Zsebedics put on Christ for the first time.
Encountering Christ anew
“I think I did it because I knew I was going with others to this retreat who had something that I didn’t, and I was sort of hiding behind Jesus,” said Zsebedics, 52, a member of the Tampa Bay Chapter, and CEO of VoloForce, a software company.
On that weekend retreat several years ago, Zsebedics met Jesus in a deeply personal manner. Encountering Christ in a Eucharistic Adoration gathering, Zsebedics said the Lord physically intervened in his interior life.
“This was miraculous, not a metaphor,” Zsebedics said. “Jesus Christ reached into my chest with His hand. I actually felt it. He grabbed my heart. I gasped. That was it. My life was changed forever.”
As he later knelt down and wept, Zsebedics felt a peace envelop his entire body. Nothing in that moment would have been able to take that consolation away from him, not even the pain of being a sex abuse survivor.
Betrayed altar boy
“There is no amount of money that can ever heal the way that Jesus Christ can,” said Zsebedics, who was an altar boy in the third grade when he was sexually abused by one of his parish priests in Queens, New York.
After finishing their altar service training, Zsebedics said the priest escorted each of them separately into a bathroom in the sacristy, where he abused them. Not even 10 years old, Zsebedics and the other boy did not understand what had happened.
“Being in the third grade, you don’t know much about the world,” Zsebedics said. “At the time, it was confusing. The older you get, you see what’s going on and you begin to know what’s happening.”
Growing up with that horrible memory turned Zsebedics off to the Catholic Church, which he saw as having no moral authority, especially since his childhood parish — Our Lady Queen of Martyrs – turned out to be “an epicenter” of clergy sex abuse. Zsebedics’ own sister was abused by one of the parish priests.
“A lot of bad priests were brought there,” Zsebedics said. “A lot of altar boys and others who worked in and around the rectory were abused in one way or another by those priests, and the diocese covered it up for many years.”
Damaged view of Church
The horrible experience also shaded Zsebedics’ view and understanding of sexuality for many years.
“Looking back, you bring this garbage everywhere you are in your life. You look at sexuality differently,” he said. “Back then in the 1970s, nobody talked about what sexuality is and how one is supposed to look at sexuality in general. You become numb. You try to figure it out and understand.”
As an adult, Zsebedics fell in love with Ellen, a young Pan Am flight attendant in New York with whom he would later elope. Ellen’s mother, a devout Catholic, arranged for the couple to meet with a priest and have their civil marriage convalidated.
Though he attended Catholic schools for 12 years, Zsebedics said he was “poorly formed” in the faith, and was not very supportive when Ellen, who was baptized Catholic but never received her other sacraments, enrolled in RCIA. When Ellen received Holy Communion for the first time, Zsebedics watched in bewilderment as she started crying.
Powerful return to faith
“All I can think of is why is this woman crying over this Jesus cookie?” Zsebedics said. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘She should be crying because she’s marrying the greatest man on earth, which is me.’”
Their parish priest subsequently encouraged the couple to complete “St. Louis de Monfort’s Way of Total Consecration to Jesus Through Mary.” Our Lady’s promise of drawing the soul closer to her son had its desired effect. Both had powerful conversion experiences.
“It changed the direction of our family,” Zsebedics said, adding that he and Ellen, who have been married 23 years in the Church, developed a prayer group with other families. Their family also grew.
Today, they have six children whose ages range from 9 to 27. Their 18-year-old son, Andrew, recently told them he plans to enroll in seminary to discern the priesthood.
Priceless gift of healing
“My wife and I were joyful that we had a son who was open to discernment,” said Zsebedics, who, though he was abused by a priest, encouraged his children to be open to the Lord’s call, even if that meant the priesthood.
Zsebedics also said he regularly prays for his abuser, who died in 2016. Zsebedics added that he has spoken with diocesan officials in New York to erect a shrine to St. Maria Goretti at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church to aid in the healing of sex abuse survivors.
“Bishops will often ask, ‘What can I do to help you heal?’ It’s very difficult when you tell them, ‘Absolutely nothing,’” Zsebedics said. “There’s not a dollar in the world that can actually make up for this priceless gift of faith and healing that we received through the Blessed Mother and her son, Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.” L B
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.