Priest, radio host Lengwin shares spiritual, church teachings
There was a time when Ron Lengwin thought he might want to be a doctor.
Then, he believes, the ultimate career counselor stepped in with another suggestion.
“I decided that a physician accomplishes great good in healing the body and mind, but a priest could heal the spirit and soul,” says the long-time spokesman for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. “It was not a matter of determining who could do more, but to what God had called me.”
Few physicians could have hoped for a more challenging, fulfilling and varied calling, or one that has impacted as many lives as this Roman Catholic priest, administrator, author and radio host.
In the school of divine humor, some might see it as a blessed irony that Lengwin — “Father Ron” to many — is such a public person and yet, at heart, considers himself shy, even an introvert, who has found ways to express himself since the days of grade-school plays on Pittsburgh’s South Side.
“Each of us is unique with various gifts given to us by God that make themselves known when they are needed by us at different stages of life,” he reasons.
As the new diocesan general secretary-vicar general, appointed by Bishop David Zubik, Lengwin, 72, oversees programs and acts on the bishop’s behalf when decisions have to be made in his absence. The diocese serves 634,736 Catholics in six counties.
To the five bishops he has served, Lengwin has been “very free in saying ‘yes’ to the needs of the church,” not seeking personal credit, but working behind the scenes to help its efforts continue, Zubik says.
The priest, ordained by then Bishop John Wright in 1966, first served as a parochial vicar at St. Peter, Butler, in 1966 and St. Philip, Crafton, in 1972. Lengwin was appointed assistant director for communication of the diocese in 1974 and then director in 1977.
He always addresses the truth, Zubik says. “There will always be times when life feels like a challenge, but when you know you are speaking the truth, it puts you at ease,” Lengwin says. Zubik believes Lengwin’s integrity “builds up the credibility of the church.”
Many people who have become aware of him through the media over the years feel comfortable approaching Lengwin as “their priest.” He receives phone calls, letters, emails and is stopped on the street. “There are times when some people need anonymity, and I can fulfill that need,” he says.
Susan Sholtis of Bethel Park, who serves 6:30 a.m. mass for Lengwin at St. Mary of Mercy Church, Downtown, where he assists, understands why people feel very comfortable approaching him. “He has an openness to hear other people’s pain,” she says.
As host of the long-running, award-winning “Amplify,” his live talk show on KDKA 1020 AM radio (9 to 11 p.m. Sundays), he reaches listeners of all faiths in 38 states and parts of Canada. The show looks at life from a religious perspective.
Earlier this year, the Catholic Youth Association of Pittsburgh presented him with the Bill Burns award for integrity in broadcast journalism.
He celebrates 40 years in radio next year. “It is a very personal, even intimate, medium that allows people to reflect more closely on the words being spoken with fewer distractions,” he says. He believes “the search for truth and understanding is an essential part of our being.”
Every Christmas Eve, he volunteers to host a live, all-night talk show on KDKA Radio, especially addressed to those who find the holidays a time of great sorrow.
“His voice is so comforting,” says Frank Dobies of Shaler. “He makes you really think.” Dobies and his wife lost a son in 1987.
Twice Lengwin learned that “hearing about God’s love for them” inspired listeners not to commit suicide.
“Don’t forget how precious life is and how powerful love is,” he tells his audience every week. “Tell someone now that you love them. Pray for peace as if it depended on you alone.”
A frequent guest on “Amplify,” Mike Aquilina of Bridgeville, author of almost 40 books on Catholic history and spirituality, praises Lengwin as “a real priest,” someone intensely aware that he must be a reflection of Christ to the world.
“Father Ron is one of Pittsburgh’s virtuosos,” he says. “To sit with him on ‘Amplify’ is like watching (Roberto) Clemente taking batting practice or the Pittsburgh Symphony’s conductor Manfred Honeck warming up backstage.”
Another frequent guest, best-selling secular and religious author Ace Collins of Arkansas, a Baptist deacon, calls Lengwin “the best prepared interviewer I have ever met.”
“I often feel he knows my books better than I do,” he says. “He is just a quality man, bright and curious, who has such a special way to frame faith in his stories.”
For decades, he has been a voice of spirituality in Pittsburgh, says Cardinal Donald Wuerl, former bishop of the Pittsburgh Diocese and a Pittsburgh native.
“The spirituality of his ministry touches his whole approach to everything,” says Wuerl, now archbishop of Washington, who has known Lengwin for more than 40 years. Lengwin was adviser for the 18 year-run of “The Teaching of Christ,” a program on KDKA-TV that Wuerl hosted.
“I always knew that I had not done a good job if he came on the set after a take and he began by quietly saying, ‘I think that was OK,’ “ Wuerl says, laughing. “Then I knew it was time to redo.”
“One of the things Father Ron is able to do is deliver bad news in the bigger picture of the good news that often is part of the same context,” he says. “He has a real respect for the people he is dealing with, the media, and that comes across in his openness, his responses, very, very directly and clearly to questions.”
Lengwin sees his responsibility in making known the teaching of the church on many issues, including clarifying them when they are misunderstood. “Father Ron has complete faith in the church and knows that the church survives bad news,” says Robert Lockwood, the diocese’s director for communications.
While Lengwin acknowledges that his job is filled with stress, his unexpected major heart surgery this winter was not directly related to it but, says his cardiologist, can be attributed to family DNA. His prognosis is for a full recovery with no future limitations. His physician told him that if he had not been a vegetarian (for 30-plus years), he would have had to face this operation 10 years earlier.
He manages stress with daily exercise, relaxing with classical music and working in the flower garden he and his sister have at their family home.
“My mother had my sister and I pull weeds when we were children as punishment,” he says. “The negative experience turned into a deep love of nature as one of God’s special gifts to us, reflecting his wisdom and love.”
Lengwin was very involved from the early years of the formation in 1970 of Christian Associates of Southwestern Pennsylvania, including serving as director of communications for the regional agency bringing together 26 Christian churches and their leaders from 16 Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant communions to promote Christian unity.
He is “very gracious, ecumenically,” says the Rev. Kurt Kusserow, bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s Southwestern Pennsylvania Synod. “He is able to speak very directly and clearly on even sensitive matters that need to be addressed, always with compassion and care.”
Lengwin also is the convener of the Priest-Rabbi Dialogue and the Religious Leaders Fellowship, an interfaith coalition of Christian and non-Christian leadership. Rabbi Aaron Bisno of Rodef Shalom calls the priest “an ecumenical role model.”
The priest, Lockwood says, is “the flip-side of Will Rogers’ famous quote, ‘I never met a man I didn’t like.’ — I never met a person who didn’t like Father Ron.”
Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or [email protected].