Catholic Boy Meets Jesus

Clap Your Hands! by Larry Tomsczak (Logos International, 1973).

Clap Your Hands! is the autobiography of 23-year-old Larry Tomsczak, who, at the time of the book’s publishing, was the “nation’s only full-time Catholic evangelist.” It’s not surprising that later on in life, Larry parted ways with the Magisterium and started his own ministry. Larry’s story makes it clear why Protestantism is truly America’s religion: we don’t want fusty old institutions standing between us and the Lord. We want Jesus, and we want Him now.

Larry embodies the surging, fresh national character, while the rest of his family are stuck in their old ways. His parents, aged Polish immigrants, embarrass him with their menial jobs (taken to pay for Catholic school!) and old-world attitudes. His sister, Margaret, declines into a funk of weight-gain, swearing, and alcoholism after a failed engagement. Her room is painted a sour-apple hue, has a “surrealistic zoo” of stuffed animals hanging from the ceiling and a three-foot tall emerald-green Buddha in a corner. (Is it weird that I thought that Margaret seemed like the fun one of the bunch? Been there, Margaret.)

Larry’s restless and feels destined for something. His first brush with fame comes with his band, The Lost Souls, who attracted a large Cleveland following. Surely one of the great Catholic bands of all time, The Lost Souls took guff from fellow parishioners at Holy Trinity when they promenaded back from communion with their long hair and cool threads. (How touching is it that they were still all going to Mass? Together? In high school???)

Larry has also gotten into weightlifting, and apparently the band was getting lots of chicks but there aren’t any juicy details since this book carries the Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur—I guess we’ll have to take his word for it.

This is all prelude to Larry’s great awakening in his burnt orange Fiat 850 one morning on his way to Cleveland State, where the BMOC is (of course) student body president. There must be more to life than this. Coincidentally, he’s been invited by a few different people to attend Christian services, where he is blown away by the singing hand-clapping of the book’s title. He ponders the meaning of the question “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?” Larry has no clue what they are talking about, but he soon discovers that he, Larry, can have a personal relationship with Jesus, and not just leave it up to the priests. Soon Larry has surrendered himself to Christ. He witnesses the gift of tongues and the interpretation of tongues. (Why on earth doesn’t the Holy Spirit cause people to speak in known human languages? Just wondering.)

Larry’s new zeal for Bible-reading freaks his family out. He tries to tell Margaret of his new relationship to the Risen Christ.

“‘Aw come on, Marg. Just listen, okay? It all centers around a person, Jesus Christ. He’s real and last week I accepted—’

Look!’ Margaret yelled. ‘I go to Mass; that’s more than my friends do.’”

His dad has a similar reaction when Larry confronts him with his new faith. “‘Just because you’re born into a church, that doesn’t make you a Christian.’

‘What?’ Dad said. ‘I’m a Catholic, Larry!”

Soon after, Larry and two of his friends are baptized in the Spirit at about 4:00 in the morning after a long rap-session after a Saturday night service. Kneeling on the floor of Larry’s basement, the three are moved to tears and laughter after asking Jesus to send the Spirit down to them, and Larry begins to speak in tongues.

Later that day, he consults with an old priest friend, who had told him of his conversion in the spirit a few years previously. Father Sommer speaks of the Pentecostal movement in the Catholic church and assures Larry he is not alone, that indeed, “it’s happening everywhere. … something so enormous is beginning to happen that we can’t even imagine it, and you and I are privileged to be a part of it.” Larry is soon devoting most of his time to the Catholic Pentecostal movement, and even gets a cover story in the Catholic Universe Bulletin, with a picture and the headline LET’S RAP ABOUT THE FAITH, SAYS CSU STUDENT BODY PRESIDENT.

His parents and sister start to come around to Larry’s way of thinking, too. Larry’s dad, who has always believed in the “works” theory of salvation, finally comes around to Larry’s faith-in-Jesus-Christ side of things, after Larry asserts over and over that salvation is a “free gift.” Larry’s dad laments that he had spent sixty years trying to save himself when “Jesus Christ had done it already.” His Mom starts flipping through the Bible in her spare time and attending Catholic charismatic prayer meetings. Margaret invites Jesus into her life, as well, and He takes away “the liquor, the cigarettes, the profanity and the gluttony” and plants “seeds of patience, gentleness, goodness and self-control.”

When Larry graduates cum laude from CSU (also Senior of the Year and President’s Award winner) his family presents him with a “big, black, beautiful Bible.” I could only think that Larry wasn’t going to stay Catholic for long when confronted with the picture of him preaching at Jesus ’73, a midsummer festival in the Pennsylvania countryside. (Note to Hollywood: I would love to write a screenplay about Jesus ’73. Call me!) Wearing a tank top and snug-fitting striped flares, raising a well-muscled arm over the crowd, Larry, the Catholic evangelist, is flowing into Protestantism before our very eyes, leaving the Mother Church, with her works and rules and obsolete traditions, behind.

Mary Valle lives in Baltimore and is the author of Cancer Doesn't Give a Shit About Your Stupid Attitude: Reflections on Cancer and Catholicism. She blogs on KtB as The Communicant. For more Mary, check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.