John Wayne died on June 11, 1979. Like many Americans at the time I felt as if a personal friend had died. Growing up, Wayne was a part of my childhood both on TV and at the local theater. Remarkably, more than three decades after his demise, he still routinely appears among the top ten favorite actors in polls. For three and a half decades he dominated American film screens and became the archetypal Western hero. Frequently savaged by film critics in his life, something which bothered him little, his appearance as a Centurion in the film The Greatest Story Ever Told, the video clip which begins this post, was a special target, Wayne’s work has endured the test of time. A staunch conservative, Wayne upheld a love of country when such love was popular and when it was unpopular. Eventually he became a symbol of America, recognizable around the globe. What is less known about Wayne is his religion, and, at the end, his conversion to Catholicism.
Wayne had a strong faith in God. This is illustrated well in this video clip from The Alamo, the scene begins at 9:26 on the video, the film which was Wayne’s pet project from beginning to end.
This clip didn’t make it into the released film, but a discussion of God did. Before the final assault on the Alamo, some of the defenders are thinking about death and debating whether God exists, and one of the men makes a striking declaration of his faith in God. We also have this line from John Wayne as Davy Crockett: “It was like I was empty. Well, I’m not empty anymore. That’s what’s important, to feel useful in this old world, to hit a lick against what’s wrong for what’s right even though you get walloped for saying that word. Now I may sound like a Bible beater yelling up a revival at a river crossing camp meeting, but that don’t change the truth none. There’s right and there’s wrong. You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around, but you’re dead as a beaver hat.”
Sadly this faith did not move him to moral conduct in one important area of his life. His pursuit of women led to two divorces and his estrangement from his third wife. Unlike some sinners in his profession however, Wayne never pretended that his conduct was in any way right and moral, and he blamed only himself for the wreck his lust made of his personal life.
Ironically enough, each of his wives was Catholic. All of his seven kids, the first being born in 1934 and the last in 1966, were raised Catholic, and for virtually all of his adult life Wayne paid tuition to Catholic schools, as each of his children received a Catholic education. Wayne was deeply impressed by the results, as none of his kids, as he said, “ever game me a minute’s trouble”, and he gave a large share of the credit to the Catholic schools. His wives were hispanics, and Wayne had many close friends in Panama and Mexico, and he remarked as to how he envied the certainty that their Catholic faith gave them. When his close friend and director John Ford died of cancer Wayne also noted the serenity and courage with which the Catholic Ford faced a painful death.
When asked about his religion Wayne would either say he was a Presbyterian, although he never attended Presbyterian services as an adult, or a “Cardiac Catholic”, a humorous reference to the fact, as any priest can attest to, that many a non-Catholic facing death wishes to go out embracing Mother Church.
For years, Wayne knew that his kids wanted him to convert. He felt guilty that he hadn’t been a better father to them and when he fought his final courageous battle with cancer he decided it was time. On his deathbed Wayne was received into the Church, one more laborer hired at the last moment who receives the full day’s wage, one more lost lamb bounding into the sheepfold as darkness descends.
Wayne played many roles in his life. At the end, acting was done and Wayne faced God as a penitent Catholic. May he be now enjoying the Beatific Vision.