Mary Beth Bonacci had a thriving career as a full-time Catholic speaker. Attractive, cool, and hilarious, she connected well with young people and was among the earliest Catholic chastity speakers. She wrote two books, We’re on a Mission from God and Real Love, and the latter was translated into nine languages. On stage and in writing, she made St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body not merely comprehensible for a wide readership, but also inspiring and impactful. Her largest audiences included 10,000 in Mexico, 22,000 in St. Louis during Pope John Paul II’s visit there, and 75,000 in Denver for World Youth Day.
In 2005, Bonacci gave up her speaking engagements almost completely, and transitioned to full-time work as a realtor. In a 2016 blog post, she revealed that it was not only for her health that she had made these changes; another factor was a stalker, “Lord Ray,” whose harassment of her eventually required FBI involvement. Her speaking schedule began to expand again around the time she learned of her stalker’s death; she has continued to write for Catholic Match on dating, the single life, and related subjects.
Catholic World Report caught up with her recently to learn more.
CWR: Let’s start with “Lord Ray.” Looking back, do you see any good that God brought out of the cross of being stalked?
Mary Beth Bonacci: When I think about it, two things come to mind. One is that it really took the bloom off the rose for me for the “glamour” of fame, because I was a very small fish, but just visible enough to attract the attention of someone mentally unbalanced. And so I started reading Gavin de Becker, who wrote The Gift of Fear (he’s a celebrity security guy), and I read what real celebrities go through, and I thought, “Oh my gosh! This is not fun! I don’t know how they live like this: they’ve got people targeting them all the time.” Some of the stories just about curled my hair. So I thought, “People want to be famous—why?”
And then internally…Ray was clearly mentally ill, and it did give me a certain compassion, once I could separate my own fear, for the really kind of sad, difficult life he led.
CWR: You pulled back from full-time speaking in 2005. During the next decade or so, how often were you speaking?
Bonacci: It varied. Still several times a year on the road, and more often here in [Denver]. That was a drop from spending half the month or more on the road during the height of my career.s
CWR: And did it improve your health? Your doctors had said you needed to take a break—
Bonacci: Oh yeah. Full-time speaking is just a hard way to live.
CWR: Why did you switch to real estate? Is that something you had always been interested in?
Bonacci: I had always been interested in it. I was the one who would help people find their houses—even if I didn’t know them. People would move to the parish, and I’d say, “Can I help you find a house?” And I’d go with them and their real estate agents—and [laughs] sometimes I’d do a better job than the real estate agents. So when I was realizing that I had to do something else and no ministry doors were opening, people kept saying, “You should think about selling real estate.” Finally I went to God and said, “Are you okay with this? I’d really like to do it.” And he was. And really a lot of the attraction is that it’s my own business: it is flexible, so I could still do ministry, at my pace, but take the pressure off of ministry to support me.
CWR: What do you like about working in real estate?
Bonacci: When I was speaking, the most difficult part is that it’s an isolating way to live. You travel alone, you’re in a hotel room alone, then you speak to 5,000 people you’ll never see again and go back to the hotel room alone. Real estate plunked me right in the middle of people. On an ongoing basis. It’s not just an audience that I never see again; it’s clients I’ve worked with for months and sometimes years and then frequently maintain a relationship with after it’s over. So I love that. I actually get to be with people, I work with people, and help them, and then continue a friendship, a relationship, a kind of community, even when we’re done.
CWR: What did you learn during that decade or so when you were less in the public eye?
Bonacci: I think I learned two things. One, I learned that we need community. I knew it when I didn’t have it, but when I started changing my life and deliberately trying to build it, it became very real that we can’t live an isolated life. It’s just not what God wants for us.
And then second, I think being reminded that my value in the eyes of God does not come from how many talks I give or how big my audiences are or how many books I sell. I think every speaker—every good speaker—knows that intellectually, but we forget, or it doesn’t really sink in that God isn’t approving of me to the extent that I’m standing in front of an audience sharing his message and not approving of me to the extent that I’m not, that there are other ways to serve him, not confusing attention with value.
CWR: Many people find it hard to trust in God, and in his plan. In a recent article on Catholic Match you spoke candidly and beautifully about how hard it can be to be single, for someone who wants to marry.
Bonacci: Yeah, it’s a cross. And it’s a cross that more and more people are having to face because of the deterioration of society and the deterioration of the practice of the faith; for people for whom that’s important, it’s more difficult to find each other. And you’ve got the scourge of pornography, and the hookup culture, and fewer people living the faith—all of which makes it difficult for people who take their faith seriously to find each other and form marriages. So it’s a cross we didn’t used to see in the kind of numbers that we are now.
CWR: Do you see any fruits the Lord is bringing out of that cross in your own life?
Bonacci: Oh, absolutely. In my life, internally, it forces me to turn to him, where a married person might turn to a spouse: in difficult times, in loneliness, in struggle, in just…questions. And especially now that I’m taking care of my parents—just trying to figure out what to do, there are so many times I just think: “I gotta go pray. I gotta go pray. I gotta go pray.” If I had a partner—which I would love—I recognize that I might not feel the urgency of turning to God that I feel as a single.
And then externally, it’s as old as the vocation to celibacy: even those of us who are involuntarily celibate do have more time, more flexibility, more opportunity to make a difference on a wider level. Certainly my speaking career wouldn’t have happened, or wouldn’t have gone as long as it did, if I had been married. The role I play in the lives of my nieces and nephews…I wouldn’t be as involved with them if I had my own kids.
And then I’ve had a ministry to single people. Between writing for Catholic Match and speaking at singles’ conferences, it’s been great to have the opportunity to reach out to them, because single adults are a forgotten demographic in the Church, certainly. Especially once we move past the “young adult” phase, which [laughing] just keeps getting older and older. Nobody knows what to do with us. (In the singles’ talks, I always joke about how, when you get to a certain age, finally the young-adult group says, “You can’t come here anymore. We have nothing for you. You’re just going to have to wait for the seniors’ casino bus.”) So when I stopped speaking on the road all the time I was feeling called to do more with single adults.
CWR: And what other form has this ministry to singles taken?
Bonacci: I’ve been speaking at the National Catholic Singles Conference since the beginning; I spoke at their very first conference in Denver in 2005, and at several others since. I’ll be speaking at their conference in Minneapolis in June. And then other singles’ speaking venues: I spoke here in Denver at Theology on Tap a couple months ago and at other Theology on Tap singles’ events around the nation. And actually, internationally: I spoke in September ’16 at the first Australian Catholic Singles Conference.
CWR: And now you’ve expanded your availability as a speaker. When did that change begin, and why?
Bonacci: I didn’t just decide, “Okay, I’ll go back to it”—but I had kind of had it in the back of my head that I could do more speaking. As I became more open to it, people were coming to me and saying, “We need you,” and I was thinking, “I want to do this.” And then I started running into people here and there, and telling them that I was open, and from there the invitations started coming in. Kind of like the way it worked when I started my speaking ministry in the first place!
CWR: How often are you speaking now and where? Is it local or national or international?
Bonacci: It’s all three. I speak locally around here…it varies, sometimes a few times a month. And nationally it’s picking back up. I’m trying to keep it to no more than once a month leaving town. Just because of my responsibilities here between my business and my parents.
CWR: How have your talks changed over the years? And how have audiences changed over the years, because culture has changed?
Bonacci: My talks have changed, definitely much more grown-up now. I speak primarily to adults. I just felt like it was time to let younger speakers speak to teenagers. So I speak to pretty much college-age and up now. It’s more an adult talk, so we can get a little more intellectual—though it’s still me, so it’s still fun and we still laugh.
The audiences…what I’m finding is that they’re hungrier than ever for an antidote to what they’re hearing in the culture. I’m not speaking to teenagers anymore; those audiences, I’m sure, have changed a lot. And between the fact that I am older and the culture has moved further away—that’s why I handed that over to the younger speakers.
But I still speak on Theology of the Body, on women, the feminine genius, single life, helping parents teach chastity to kids—it’s just all for adults now.
CWR: George Weigel likened St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” to a time-bomb waiting to go off, saying it had unplumbed riches that would ultimately save our culture. Do you think that has begun to come true?
Bonacci: I do. I certainly think that to the extent that people have ears to hear what St. John Paul II has to say—I mean, he had the antidote to so much of what is wrong, especially in helping us understand the reality of God’s creation of man as male and female. Who knew, when he was giving these talks, that we would get to this point where people deny the existence of male and female? When I started speaking on Theology of the Body, I didn’t even say it was Theology of the Body; I didn’t think people—particularly teenagers—would really relate to the term. Since then it’s exploded, the awareness of it and interest in it. You hear so many stories of people who came to a talk or read a book and were really reacquainted with the wisdom of God’s plan. So, yeah, it has the power to do that—the question is whether people have ears to hear.
CWR: What worries you about our culture today and its direction?
Bonacci: Almost everything? [laughing] We used to be at war with morality, and now we seem to be at war with reality. We want to deny that male is male, and female is female. That there is such a thing as truth.
There used to be vigorous debate about these things. They used to call me St. Mary Beth of Berkeley, Virgin and Martyr, because I debated abortion at Berkeley. The Berkeley community was very hostile to our viewpoint, but they were also open and wanted to hear every viewpoint. But now there’s no reason, there’s no intellectual discussion—there’s no un-intellectual discussion—it’s all just safe spaces and shutting down any disagreement, any speech, any opinion that anyone finds remotely disturbing. It’s all emotional. You can’t get to the truth when everything’s just shut down: when God is shut down, when dialogue is shut down, when debate is shut down. So yeah, there are a lot of things that concern me, but that happening in academia on college campuses, I think, is one of the most frightening things because this is our next generation of leaders.
CWR: So that just shows that John Paul II’s call for a New Evangelization is all the more needed. What does the New Evangelization mean to you?
Bonacci: To me, it’s evangelization that meets people where they are in the modern era. It’s using the tools of communication to reach them; for John Paul II, it was the media; for us it’s become social media. Wherever people are, wherever they’re looking, wherever they’re listening, and then meeting them where they are in terms of what they need to hear and how specifically we can walk them from where they are to where the truth is, to the truth in Christ. And that’s always been my philosophy: to walk with people, not to stand on our side and say, “Hey, you’re on the wrong side; come on over here.” It’s to walk over to them and say, “I can see why you think this, but let’s look at this,” and just walk back one step at a time.
CWR: What do you say to the many Catholics worried about family members who have left the Church?
Bonacci: It’s so difficult, because I can stand up and really make an impact on 5,000 strangers, but when it comes to our own families, we’re so much less effective. Family is the most difficult place to evangelize. I really just say to them, “We can’t downplay the power of prayer and example: of praying for family and living our faithful lives.” I think different families are different in terms of how much actual dialogue there can be: in some there’s more openness, in others there’s less, but I think there’s a certain power to just living our lives “out loud.” Not calling attention to what we do, but just doing it: being Catholics, just being the light of Christ, letting the Holy Spirit shine in us, and then praying. ’Cause that’s all we’ve got [laughing]; it had better help!
CWR: What gives you hope?
Bonacci: There are so many areas for hope. There is so much more vibrant evangelization, certainly, than when I was young. I mean, there was nothing. Now there’s vibrant youth ministry, there’s vibrant young adult ministry, we’ve got FOCUS, we’ve got ENDOW…I could name a million, and then I’d still leave many out. There are so many opportunities. We’ve got fabulous Catholic colleges, and we’ve got Catholic families that are really molding, shaping, and evangelizing their own kids and equipping them to go out. And of course the greatest source of hope is always that God is in charge and the Holy Spirit bats last.
CWR: What plans do you have for the future? Any more books?
Bonacci: You know, I would love to write more books, and I’ve been kind of struggling with starting to do that, but I haven’t had the bandwidth, so prayers for that would be appreciated.
As for the future…I love selling real estate, but I am restless to do more for the Kingdom, and I don’t know what God has in mind. I’m taking care of my parents right now, so I’m on a somewhat shorter leash, but in the future…I don’t know. I’m very interested to see what the Holy Spirit has up his sleeve because I would love to go more into ministry—but within the context of community: not just me alone on an airplane full-time again. I don’t know. I keep thinking I’d like to live out the rest of my life at a Catholic college somewhere. So I don’t know what the Holy Spirit has in mind, but I’m looking forward to seeing what it is.
I think what I desire most—not being a physical mother myself—what I desire most is really more and more spiritual motherhood. Just to be a mother. I gave a talk to a woman’s group in Arlington, Virginia, last fall on woman’s vocation. I talked about how woman’s vocation all revolves around motherhood. And I said the greatest cross of my life has been childlessness. And I was astonished at how that was the line that impacted the women who came up to me afterward, whether childless themselves or not. We’re all mothers, and however God uses me, that’s primarily how I want him to use me: as a mother.