Priest given ‘another chance’ to complete mission in life Print
Around the Diocese
Written by Jane Lepeska Grinde, Catholic Herald Correspondent   
Thursday, Jun. 29, 2017 -- 12:00 AM

fr.  john tourangeau
Fr. John Tourangeau, O. Praem, spoke to members of the Madison Diocesan Council of Catholic Women attending the annual convention in Fort Atkinson. Father Tourangeau told the women of his experience with death and how he was given a chance to complete his mission in life. (Catholic Herald photo/Fr. Peter Auer)

FORT ATKINSON -- Fr. John Tourangeau, O. Praem, began his keynote speech to the women at the Madison Diocesan Council of Catholic Women (MDCCW) convention held at St. Joseph Parish in Fort Atkinson, June 14, with a request to join him in reciting The Hail Mary.

“We humbly ask blessings from the Blessed Virgin Mary on our gathering,” prayed the Norbertine priest who spoke on “Heaven: Is it for Real?” He is the co-author with Travis Vanden Heuvel of To Heaven and Back: The Journey of a Roman Catholic Priest.

Upon ordination, Father Tourangeau served several parishes in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, N.M., and then returned to St. Norbert College in De Pere, where he was vocational coordinator and pastor.

He completed work on his Ph.D. in organization development through Benedictine University, and earned a Master of Divinity degree in mission specialization from Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, and a Master of Social Work from New Mexico Highlands University.

Heaven is the ultimate end

Acknowledging the many good books and movies on heaven, Father Tourangeau said his book is written from a Catholic perspective.

All the other books describe the looks of heaven. While not discounting any of that, “you won’t find that in my book.” He referred to the Catechism of the Catholic Church which teaches that “Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfilment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness” (n.1024).

Before telling his story, he set the tone of his presentation talking about relationships. “How do we get along with living, loving, and relating after a traumatic event in our lives? How do we get along living our Catholic faith after losing a loved one? How do we not get angry and bitter? How do we not give up our faith?

“Each and every day of our lives, by virtue of our baptism,” he said, “we are called to enter into the mission of Jesus Christ, and to enter into the mystery. We want to solve mystery, but it is not up to us to solve or resolve mystery. We enter into it and trust God more each day and come to know more intimately how to discover our mission.”

Each person has a mission in life

In light of the mission of Jesus, he raised more questions. “What is your particular mission in Christ? Why has God placed you here in this place at this time? What is your mission? What is mine? In what ways are you broken and struggling?

“I had a heart attack. In what ways am I broken and struggling today? What relationships need reconciliation? What needs changing?”

In 1993 at the age of 33, he suffered a heart attack. It took many years for him to talk about his experience, and he did it reluctantly. Slowly, he started talking to people about the experience, and by 2012 he was speaking to large groups. From 2012 to 2015, more than 10,000 people attended more than 35 presentations. As a result, he wrote the book with his co-author.

Experiencing death

As he celebrated Mass at his parish in the southeastern part of New Mexico, he started feeling pain in his arm. Yes, he thought, I might be overweight, smoke too much, eat too much bad food, but he wasn’t willing to admit it was a heart attack until the middle of the night when he could barely draw a breath. He called friends to take him to the emergency room.

With humor, he related how he was greeted at the emergency room by the head nurse who asked him what he was doing there. No one here needs a priest. He said, “I do. I may need to make a good Confession.”

Suggesting he was having a heart attack, everyone went into high gear, but still he was thinking he was a survivor and didn’t need anyone. He was a survivor of a traumatic family that was characterized by addiction, depression, and faith. So now, “I am feeling exposed to the world. The young doctor asked me if I believed in God: ‘If you do, I suggest you make your peace because you are in the midst of a cardiac event.’”

Father Tourangeau still wanted to be in control. “If indeed I was passing from this life to the next, it might be a good time to trust in God. I wanted to be in control but couldn’t be, so I let go and trusted. This was much bigger than me. At that moment, I experienced the most profound peace, healing, and reconciliation. I experienced what others have experienced. What I remember is that it was in living color, and only contained happy events of my life.”

He heard the young doctor say, “We have lost him,” and he was bathed in light. “I saw, but not with eyes but with the heart or eyes of faith. I was very conscious that I was surrounded by the community of saints, those who have gone before us. I felt my mother’s presence.”

He didn’t see Jesus but knew that He was at his side. “We are walking and conversing at the threshold of heaven. I was delighted that I had made it that far, but then was told, ‘You need to go back because your mission is not complete.’”

Completing his mission in life

His thought was to get to know his mission, so he could hurry up and do whatever it was and come back, but instead he heard, “You need to go back and figure out your mission, join in relationship to other people.” Then he heard the doctor say that they had a heartbeat, and “I wasn’t a happy camper.”

Since then, the priest said he lost half of his body weight, changed his eating habits, and smokes only one or two cigarettes a day. While he was recovering, his dad showed up and said that he loved him and would gladly trade places with him. This was the start of the healing process with his father, with whom he had distanced himself over the years because of his alcoholism.

Opening the relationship with his dad required him “to heal a broken heart from the inside out.”

Growing up as the oldest child in a family of faith, depression, and addiction, he learned that what happens within the family stays in the family, so people looking at them thought all was well. His mother suffered from major depression and spent time institutionalized. “My heart attack opened the door for us to heal.”

Life’s blessings

He concluded with talking about three important life blessings.

He learned humility from his mother who told him that his vocation was no better than his siblings’ marriage vocation. He learned about failure and how to overcome it after he left high school. And, he learned the importance of finding a voice. He told the story of his deaf brother who refused the gift of cocular implant because God didn’t make a mistake when he created him.

Calling himself a “wounded healer,” Father Tourangeau said, “It is out of our brokenness that we become healers.”

Father Tourangeau’s book is available through Peregrino Press (

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