Longtime host Al Kresta, patriarch of modern Catholic radio, dies at 72

Al Kresta, host of "Kresta in the Afternoon" on Ave Maria Radio, is pictured in an undated photo. Kresta died June 15 after he was diagnosed with liver cancer on May 3. (Courtesy of Ave Maria Radio)

President and CEO of Ave Maria Radio leaves legacy of thoughtful evangelization, wide impact on Church's relation to culture

ANN ARBOR — One interview, commentary and insightful conversation at a time, Al Kresta sought to build the Church.

And in turn, over a career spanning decades as a Catholic radio host, author, journalist, evangelist and speaker, Kresta blessed the nation.

The 72-year-old founder and president of Ann Arbor-based Ave Maria Radio died Saturday, June 15, surrounded by family at home after a brief battle with liver cancer.

A former evangelical Protestant who rose to prominence as a radio host before his conversion to Catholicism in 1992, Kresta’s voice was heard on hundreds of radio stations daily, including EWTN Catholic Radio, via Ave Maria’s flagship program, “Kresta in the Afternoon.”

According to a webpage set up by Kresta’s family to provide updates, Kresta was admitted to the University of Michigan Hospital on April 29 “after a month of tests,” which culminated in a liver cancer diagnosis on May 3.

Kresta was a patriarch of modern Catholic radio, his show marked for its wide-ranging topics, from theology and politics to culture and literature. Known for holding the "Catechism of the Catholic Church in one hand and the New York Times in the other," as his tagline said, Kresta was unafraid to bring the Church's wisdom to bear on all corners of society.

Kresta's impact was widely felt, especially in southeast Michigan, where, when he wasn't asking thought-provoking and insightful questions of Church leaders, politicians, clergy and cultural figures, he was a frequent speaker and catechist at parish events and functions.

While Kresta interviewed hundreds of movers and shakers over his career, it was no doubt conversations with listeners like Carolyn Barrett that the late host would count as his most impactful, in retrospect.

"I talked to him on his show in 2014 when he interviewed Richard Cole," Barrett wrote on a Facebook post memorializing Kresta June 15. "We talked about catechizing adults like me that had fallen away from the church because we could not get answers to our questions. I never got to tell him I came back home after 30 years lapsed. My husband and kids joined as well in 2021."

Fr. Richard Cassidy, a professor of Sacred Scripture at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, told Detroit Catholic he had been interviewed on Kresta's show multiple times, finding each conversation as enlightening as it was fruitful.

"In my estimation it is hard to overstate his impact upon the Church in southeastern Michigan and nationally as well," Fr. Cassidy said.

"Al was always well-prepared for these interviews," Fr. Cassidy continued. "He had definitely read and digested (my) book prior to the interview. Al knew both the historical and the pastoral significance of the book in question, and he directed the interview in a highly positive and professional manner."

A dramatic reversion to the Catholic faith

Born in 1951 in New England and raised Catholic, Kresta’s road back to the faith of his baptism was winding. Despite his upbringing, he described himself as a “stereotypical 1960s kid” who as a young man leaned into the worldly desires of “drugs, sex, and rock ’n’ roll.” The Catholic Church “didn’t hold much appeal to me,” he told EWTN’s “The Journey Home” in 2004.

“I was a musician and I wanted to pursue my music and a hedonistic, self-centered lifestyle,” he told the National Catholic Register in a 2000 interview.

“In 1969, I left home and became homeless by choice. I lived on the street, slept in vacant apartments, stayed on the beach in the Florida Keys and bummed off of friends," Kresta said. "After some hallucinogenic LSD experiences, I hitchhiked along the eastern seaboard looking for someone who could help me make sense of my hallucinations. I ended up in a New Age group.”

Later, though, through “a series of remarkable, providential occurrences,” Kresta said he became convinced that the New Age movement’s depiction of Jesus as a hippie guru was not correct. In 1974, as a student at Michigan State University, he embraced evangelical Protestantism, in large part thanks to the writings of C.S. Lewis. He leaned into his newfound faith, eventually opening a Christian bookstore and even pastoring a nondenominational church for five years.

Al Kresta is pictured in the radio booth in this undated file photo. After a dramatic reversion to the Catholic faith of his youth, Kresta found a home as the leader of a budding radio apostolate, building Ave Maria Communications into one of the most respected Catholic media ministries in the country.
Al Kresta is pictured in the radio booth in this undated file photo. After a dramatic reversion to the Catholic faith of his youth, Kresta found a home as the leader of a budding radio apostolate, building Ave Maria Communications into one of the most respected Catholic media ministries in the country.

As a pastor, Kresta said he was sometimes tripped up by the fact that there were authoritative questions he had to answer about the Christian faith and that he realized that “the Bible alone couldn’t settle these matters.”

“I had no authority,” he admitted in a later, 2007 “Journey Home” interview.

In the early 1990s, Kresta hosted a Catholic priest on his evangelical-focused radio program as part of an episode dedicated to “Catholic answers to Catholic questions.” Kresta said he was so moved by the priest’s answers that it hit him like a ton of bricks: “My God, I’m a Catholic.” In 1992, he repented and returned to his Catholic faith; his entire family converted at the same time.

Kresta would later say that the “intellectual integrity of the Catholic faith is unlike anything in Protestantism.”

“The Catholic faith has never disappointed me when it comes to my use of reason or intellectual coherence,” he said.

Colleagues remember Kresta as ‘deeply thoughtful’ and ‘courageous’

EWTN president and chief operating officer Doug Keck on Saturday said Kresta’s passing was “a titanic loss not only for EWTN and Ave Maria Catholic Radio, but for the entire Church."

“As his show intro said, he always had the Bible in one hand and a copy of the New York Times in another,” Keck said.

“He was fearless in his willingness to take on tough issues both inside and outside the Church,” he continued. “But always with a wisdom-driven, balanced approach designed to meet the listeners where they are but never leave them there.”

“He was an inspiring figure who overcame incredible physical roadblocks to serve his God, his family, and his Church.”

Teresa Tomeo, host of the Ave Maria Radio show “Catholic Connection,” said she would “always remember meeting [Al] long before I started in Catholic radio.”

“I was so impressed with his knowledge of Scripture and the faith as well as his early and courageous pro-life work,” she told CNA. “We lost a warrior on so many fronts. These are tough times but we continue the work in his honor and memory.”

Al Kresta speaks during a memorial service for unborn children who died in abortion at Assumption Grotto Cemetery in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2013. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)
Al Kresta speaks during a memorial service for unborn children who died in abortion at Assumption Grotto Cemetery in Detroit on Sept. 14, 2013. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)

Scott Hahn, meanwhile — a renowned biblical scholar, author, convert, and founder of the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology — called Kresta “one of the most deeply thoughtful and thoroughly converted men I’ve had the privilege of knowing — and calling a good friend.”

“He will be greatly missed by many,” Hahn said. “Requiescat in pace.”

Matthew Bunson, vice president and editorial director of EWTN News, told CNA on Saturday: “Aside from his goodness, his greatness as a father, husband, and friend, his passing will be a massive loss to the Catholic cause.”

“He was one of the keenest observers in the Church of contemporary culture and the ecclesiastical landscape,” Bunson said. “We are intellectually poorer for his passing but even more we have lost a truly prayerful, gentle, and faithful disciple of Christ.”

Rob Corzine, the vice president of academic programs at the St. Paul Center, told CNA he first became acquainted with Kresta through the radio host’s “bridge group.”

“It was a room filled with about equal numbers of Protestants and Catholics who wanted to hear him explain basic Catholic doctrines once a week throughout Lent,” Corzine said.

“Al had the gift of hearing your real question, however poorly you put it or even understood it yourself, and answering that.”

At the time of meeting Kresta, Corzine was “an evangelical who had been reading my way toward the Church for the last few years.” Shortly after, Corzine was coming into full communion with the Church; in several more months Kresta was showing him the ropes of Catholic radio.

“Al is one of the many people to whom I owe an incalculable debt of gratitude,” Corzine said. “And I am only one of the thousands of whom that is true.”

Helped launch Ave Maria Communications

In 1997, Tom Monaghan — the founder of Domino’s Pizza and also Ave Maria University in Florida — called Kresta and asked if he wanted to move to Ann Arbor to help create Ave Maria Communications. Monaghan “funded the media enterprise for years,” Kresta said in a 2013 Catholic World Report interview. Ave Maria later became a major affiliate of EWTN, which also owns Catholic News Agency.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that Catholic radio’s principal mission has been catechesis,” Kresta told Catholic World Report.

“I think in the next generation of Catholic radio that’s going to become increasingly clear. Because the last generation was spent defending the faith and defending papal infallibility … We’ll continue to defend magisterial teaching, but I think we now have to help people distinguish [between what] we owe religious assent and what are prudential judgments,” Kresta said.

In 2003, Kresta suffered with and survived a serious bout of necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial infection. It resulted in the loss of one leg, necessitating the use of a wheelchair.

Kresta said a year or so after the illness on “The Journey Home” that the experience helped him to learn that even in the midst of terrible suffering, “you can think on the cross of Jesus, and you can offer up that suffering.”

Al Kresta speaks during a rally in support of religious freedom in front of the federal building in downtown Detroit in March 2012 in response to the federal government's contraception mandate. Kresta frequently spoke out in support of the Church's freedom in the public square. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)
Al Kresta speaks during a rally in support of religious freedom in front of the federal building in downtown Detroit in March 2012 in response to the federal government's contraception mandate. Kresta frequently spoke out in support of the Church's freedom in the public square. (Michael Stechschulte | Detroit Catholic file photo)

His Catholic faith helped him, he said, to “enter more deeply into a sense of Christ’s sufferings … through being buffeted by pain, your sense of self is firmed up and strengthened, moment by moment there’s a stronger sense of who I am before God ... Christ living in me.”

“The Catholic Church’s teaching on suffering got me through arguably what was the most severe crisis I’ve had in my life ... it was my leg, or my life. So, it was my leg. Which was a very easy decision all things considered,” he said with a laugh.

In addition to his popular show and speaking engagements, Kresta co-authored four books designed to help inspire and educate readers about the Catholic faith, including "Why Do Catholics Genuflect? And Answers to Other Puzzling Questions About the Catholic Church" (2002); "Why Are Catholics So Concerned About Sin? More Answers to Puzzling Questions About the Catholic Church" (2005); "Moments of Grace: Inspiring Stories from Well-Known Catholics" (2008); and "Dangers to the Faith: Recognizing Catholicism’s 21st-Century Opponents" (2013).

Local Catholic evangelists mourn Kresta's loss

Prominent Catholic voices from across southeast Michigan expressed their sorrow at Kresta's passing, including Gary Michuta, a fellow Catholic radio host and author of several books on apologetics and catechesis.

"It's with a heavy heart that my friend and mentor Al Kresta passed away this morning," Michuta posted on Facebook. "When I used to sub for his show, I called him 'Albert the Great' because Albert knew everything about everything, and so did Al. I often dreamed about getting Al and (Catholic Answers apologist) Jimmy Akin in the same room to see if there is anything these two didn't know."

Kresta's bishop, Lansing Bishop Earl A. Boyea, offered his condolences and prayers to Kresta's wife, Sally, their five children and many grandchildren.

"Al Kresta’s life and apostolate have bestowed so many blessings upon the life of this diocese over so many years," Bishop Boyea said. "It is a mark of the man’s integrity that he prayerfully decided to return to the Catholic faith of his youth in 1992 and, thus, left behind a secure livelihood as a popular evangelical pastor and broadcaster. Such characteristic courage gave foundation in 1997 to the Ann Arbor-based Ave Maria Radio which has been a jewel in the crown of his ministry in this diocese ever since.

"On a personal note, I always enjoyed Al Kresta’s company, his good humor, his faithful friendship, and his unstinting witness to Jesus Christ and His Holy Church," Bishop Boyea added. "I will miss him very much. May he rest in peace."

Longtime coworker and author Kathy Schiffer, writing on Catholic World Report, noted Kresta's life and career were dedicated to helping others grow closer to God through prayer, a task for which he'll be well-suited as a powerful intercessor beholding the face of the Lord he loved so much.

"We now go on in the world, living and learning the Catholic Faith, without the clear insights and respectful dialogue of Al Kresta. He will be missed in many ways," Schiffer wrote. "I imagine God welcoming him home with the words we all hope one day to hear, 'Well done, good and faithful servant.'”

Kresta is survived by his wife of nearly five decades, Sally, as well as his five children and many grandchildren.

Visitation will be held on Friday, June 21, 2024 at Nie Funeral Home, 3767 W. Liberty Road, Ann Arbor, from 4-6 m., with a Scripture service and sharing from 6-8pm. Mass of Christian Burial will take place Saturday, June 22, at Christ the King Catholic Church, 4000 Ave Maria Dr., Ann Arbor, at 9:30 a.m. Interment will take place directly following at Old St. Patrick Cemetery of Ann Arbor.

Catholic News Agency contributed to much of this report.



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