Fans of ABC’s “General Hospital,” currently celebrating its 60th anniversary on the air, have embraced actor John J. York for 32 years and counting, as he plays the character Mac Scorpio, the fictional town of Port Charles’s heroic police detective who is also a loving family man with a strong moral core. And while York’s real life includes less derring-do than that of his TV alter ego, his loving devotion to family is highly accurate – but with an added dimension.
Giving credit to his daughter Schyler and God’s guiding hand, the actor experienced a reawakening of the Catholic faith in which he was raised, the faith he drifted away from for many years. He originally shared his story on his co-star Maurice Benard’s “State of Mind” show, so I invited John to be a guest on “Christopher Closeup” (podcast below) to dive a little deeper into his spiritual journey.
John grew up in a tight-knit community on the southwest side of Chicago. His mom and dad made sure that he and his five siblings were grounded in the faith, so they sent them to St. Rita’s Grade School where priests and nuns were a regular part of their lives. John compares his childhood to a Catholic version of the movie “A Christmas Story.”
As a teen, John attended Brother Rice High School, taught by the Christian Brothers, then went on to college, where faith became less important to him. He recalled, “You go through the stage of wondering and questioning. The Catholic Church has a lot of rules and a lot of tradition, basically. Tradition is a better word, I think, than rules, but there are rules. [My attitude at the time was], ‘Hey, I’m going to go play. I’m going to go do this.’ Out of sight, out of mind, and [being Catholic] just becomes a thing that I am, but I’m not practicing. I’m not living in my faith. I’m not paying attention to any of it. That’s for many years.”
John eventually left college to pursue an acting career in Hollywood. He met many people along the way who guided him towards different opportunities and jobs that allowed him to fulfill his dreams. He also met and married his wife Vicki with whom he had a daughter, Schyler.
Though his character Mac Scorpio was originally brought on to “General Hospital” as the bad guy brother and foil for actor Tristan Rogers’ action hero Robert Scorpio, that changed after a while. John said, “No one ever communicated this to me, but I believe [the producers said], ‘John’s really not a bad guy, so why don’t we just write him as a nice guy?'” That’s what Mac has been ever since, raising his wife Felicia’s daughters and niece Robin as if they were his own flesh and blood.
Meanwhile, years passed and John’s real life daughter Schyler began attending Notre Dame High School, a Catholic school. John recalled a pivotal moment in her spiritual life occurring over dinner one evening. She asked him, “Dad, what do I have to do to receive Communion? Because we always have Mass every day and everybody’s going to Communion, but I can’t go.”
Though John was culturally Catholic enough to have had Schyler baptized, he never followed through on any of the other sacraments. But in response to her question, he explained that she had to go through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) in order to officially join the Church. So that’s what she did.
John said, “Now she’s got that foundation, but we’re still [weren’t] going to church every Sunday. It just wasn’t all the way there yet. Then she went to college in Boulder…I think I did say at one point, ‘You’re a Catholic now. Going to college, there are going to be a lot of parties, a lot of beer pong and things like that going on. But go find a church if you can. Find a church and continue with your faith.’ She did that while she was there…She had an encounter, and she became deeply immersed in her love for Jesus Christ and the Catholic faith – and she brought me along with her. So I was just following her, following Him.”
Schyler went on to take a job as a FOCUS (Fellowship of Catholic University Students) missionary, which led to her meeting her husband Mike and having three children, who are now John’s pride and joy.
In finding a passion for his faith that he had never felt before, John was prompted to look back on his life and the people who helped him with a divine perspective. He said, “A series of hands [were] always reaching out for me…As I reflect back on it, it’s the hand of God, it’s the hand of Jesus that was reaching out for me, pulling me along, leading me this way, leading me that way, taking me to the next person to help me. It wasn’t this overnight success, where you step off the airplane and you get a TV show. It was a journey. As I talk and listen to people and listen to sermons, that’s what our faith is, I believe. It’s a journey with Him and the Holy Spirit and paying attention to that. As I’m older now, I’m paying attention to that.”
John has also been paying close attention to his prayer life in the years since then: He notes, “It started quite a while ago…with waking up and praying the rosary. Then, I’d go through a drawer in my room somewhere and there was my St. Jude prayer card from grade school. I love St. Jude, so I’d add that prayer. Then I’d get a prayer to the Blessed Mother…Then, I’m leaving Trader Joe’s and there’s a holy card for St. Philomena right in front of me. So I picked that up…Now St. Philomena’s part of that process. I say a prayer to St. Therese, St. Faustina, St. Joseph, St. Josemaria, St. Pio…It’s a good way to start the day. It focuses me on trying to do good things…And many of the sermons that I hear at church on Sunday, it’s simple. Start your day in a space of gratitude, a space of humility, being thankful for what’s around you.”
John’s journey of faith has also helped him see the image and likeness of God in the people he encounters every day, whether they share his beliefs or not. In fact, simply praying, “Help me to see the face of God in the people and experiences of my life,” allows him to stay focused.
“It could just be a smile from someone at a grocery store,” John explained, “or opening a door for someone, seeing a homeless person. There’s so much tragic life experience out there that we seem to step over these people and ignore them. I believe that our society has the ability to help in some way, whether it’s…government, whatever political belief and background you have, our leadership should be able to figure out a way to help folks get a bed to sleep in and a roof over their head instead of sleeping under a freeway in a freezing rain. It breaks my heart.”
John’s kindheartedness has also led him to struggle with the different perceptions of God, especially the notion of “fear of God” and that “God is going to punish you if you do this or that.” He recalled asking his father once, “Why do I have to fear God? God is the most loving, understanding, compassionate…God is God and there’s love there and there’s compassion. So why do I have to fear God?”
His father responded, “You’ve got to fear God because He has power over life and death and He can do this and that.”
“My dad was just the sweetest soul in the history of mankind,” John continued. “So, that was his perception. And I did have the other perception. I still struggle with that.”
Some Bible experts believe that fear of God in the Bible refers more to being in awe of Him than afraid of Him. John is quick to note he feels awe all the time: “The awe of God for me is the joy that I receive in my life, from my family, from my work, from my colleagues at work, the crew that I work with, all the people that I come in contact with. My daughter and my wife, they laugh at me because I cry a lot. I cry at a McDonald’s commercial sometimes. But it’s things that make me happy. I don’t necessarily cry a lot at things that are sad. It’s those things that are so joyful that it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s so amazing,’ and that brings me to tears.”
While being a person of faith doesn’t prevent John from experiencing dark times, his perspective on dealing with them is different than it used to be and in line with The Christophers’ motto, “It’s better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.”
He concluded, “I know that I’m not alone. Even if I’m by myself, I’m not alone. For me, Jesus Christ is right there with me. The Holy Spirit is right there with me, and that’s who I talk to. That’s what gets me through. That’s what helps me not to panic…That’s how I feel. He’s the light in my life. He’s the light that’s brought all these candles to me in my life.”
(To listen to my full interview with John J. York, click on the podcast link):
John J. York interview – Christopher Closeup
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