Mike Aquilina

Dion: Roots Rock and Religion

Friday September 22nd 2006, 12:03 am

Dion: He’s one of those Italians — like Madonna and Fabian — whose listening public knows him on a first-name basis. But, if you must know, his full name is Dion DiMucci. He’s from the Bronx. And he was baptized Francis because his parish priest wasn’t sure that the name his parents had chosen — Dion — was a saint’s name.

He was still in his mid-teens when he cut his first million-selling record, and he would cut many more in the years to come: “Teenager in Love,” “Runaround Sue,” “Ruby, Ruby,” “The Wanderer,” “I Wonder Why,” and “Abraham, Martin, and John” (to name just a few).

So what’s he doing on a blog about the Church Fathers?

He’s here because he’s probably the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame’s resident expert on patristics. Dion’s still recording original music to critical acclaim. Back in 2000, the New York Times featured his latest release, and quoted fulsome praise from Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Billy Joel, and other notables. But the Times’ reporter fixated not so much on the songs as on the books Dion carried with him when they met: St. Augustine’s Confessions and the Navarre Bible volume for St. Matthew’s Gospel (the Navarre commentaries go heavy on the Fathers).

Later the same year, my friend David Scott gave the backstory. Dion’s fame had soared through his teen years. He got heavily into heroin and booze, and his life and career bottomed out. Then he found his way back to faith through the influence of his wife and father-in-law. He attended a number of storefront churches, looking for the truth. One Sunday he heard a sermon that startled him.

One of his pastors quoted St. Augustine, the fifth-century North African bishop who was a spiritual and intellectual giant of the early Church. So, Dion began reading Augustine. He was amazed to discover that Augustine had been instrumental in drawing up the list of books to be included in the Bible that Protestants now relied on solely as “the inerrant Word of God.”

More eye-opening, he says, was the fact that Augustine had “Catholic beliefs” — including the belief that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, and that the Holy Spirit guides the Catholic Church and guarantees the truth of its teachings.

When he confronted his pastor and friends with his findings, “they all just tossed it off,” Dion says. “They told me it’s all according to the way you see truth. I said, ‘Exactly! You it hit it right on the head!’ And I started to see truth differently.”

For a couple of years he continued what he describes as “reading myself back into the Church.” He read the writings of the so-called early Church fathers, the first and second generation of Church leaders, some of whom had been disciples of Jesus’s original 12 apostles.

Dion’s most recent disk, like his spiritual journey, has brought him back to his roots. Now he’s doing pre-rock blues — and the critics, once again, love it. Yet even the blues, for Dion, is a religious experience. In January of this year, the Times asked him about his first exposure to bluesman Robert Johnson. Way back in the 1950s, rock impresario John Hammond gave Dion a copy of Johnson’s posthumously released recordings: “I listened to it and it got me excited, too. Some of the guys I played it for couldn’t hear it, but I heard it. It’s the naked cry of the human heart apart from God, wanting to feel at home.”

Dion, the Wanderer, found his way home — thanks be to God, and to the Fathers.

Last year, Dion joined the St. Paul Center’s pilgrimage to Rome. We saw St. Peter’s together, St. John Lateran, the catacombs. He was clearly in his element. So was I. I even got him to sign my 45-rpm record of “Abraham, Martin, and John.” If you’re interested in following in the footsteps of the Fathers and martyrs — and the more recent footsteps of Dion DiMucci — check into next year’s pilgrimage, before it fills up!