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Jim Wahlberg on new film and powerful conversion: Mother Teresa ‘was sent there for me’

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Jesus Thirsts: The Miracle of the Eucharist is a new film that takes viewers on a journey to rediscover the importance of the Eucharist. Through dialogue with notable Catholic figures who explore the biblical origins of the Eucharist and share personal stories, one of the film’s producers, Jim Wahlberg, said he hopes to revive faith in the Eucharist.

In addition to Wahlberg — the brother of actor Mark Wahlberg — several well-known Catholics make an appearance in the film, including Bishop Andrew Cozzens of Crookston, Minnesota; Father Donald Calloway, MIC; Father Robert Spitzer, SJ; Scott Hahn; Curtis Martin; and Chris Stefanick.

The film will be shown in theaters nationwide June 4, 5, and 6 distributed by Fathom Events.

Wahlberg spoke with CNA at the premiere of the film at Christ Cathedral in Orange County, California, about why he believes this movie is so important, and he also shared some of his own powerful testimony.

“We got a big problem in our Church,” Wahlberg said. “When the report is 70% think that the Eucharist is a symbol or that they don’t believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist … that’s a real problem.”

A 2019 Pew Research study found that only a third of Catholics in the U.S. believed in the Church’s teaching about the Eucharist. Nearly 70% of those in the study said they saw the body and blood of Christ as a symbol. This inspired the filmmakers behind “Jesus Thirsts” to do something about that.

Wahlberg shared that it was a true “journey” for everyone involved and served as a means of “reinvigorating our own faith journeys.”

Jim Wahlberg on the red carpet for "Jesus Thirsts: The Miracle of the Eucharist" in Orange County, California. Credit: Francesca Pollio Fenton/CNA
Jim Wahlberg on the red carpet for “Jesus Thirsts: The Miracle of the Eucharist” in Orange County, California. Credit: Francesca Pollio Fenton/CNA

The Catholic filmmaker explained that when he encounters someone who sees the Eucharist as a symbol, he shares the stories of Eucharistic miracles and encourages them to spend time with the Blessed Sacrament.

“Just get in his presence as quickly, as fast, as you can, and as often as you can, and you won’t need somebody else to prove to you where you are,” he said.

He added: “If there is no God, if Jesus Christ is not real, I have absolutely no explanation for my life and the journey that I took in my life, the redemption that I experienced, the grace that I experienced. I have no explanation for it. It’s not possible to get here from where I came from. It’s not possible without a loving God.”

Wahlberg has been vocal about his personal story of being incarcerated due to substance abuse and the powerful conversion he had after hearing St. Teresa of Calcutta speak when he was in prison.

Mother Teresa visits

Wahlberg shared that he grew up in a family that had “no real faith.”

“We were Catholics by tradition,” he said. “I never went to church with my parents. I never heard anybody invoke the name of Jesus Christ in my home — unless it was in a very angry way.”

Despite having eight brothers and sisters, he still felt alone. Wahlberg attended a different school every year from the first to the seventh grade and was introduced to alcohol at a young age.

“When you find alcohol and drugs and you’re a broken person and all of a sudden — just for that time while you’re under the influence — you don’t feel the shame and the guilt and the remorse and you don’t feel any of that, you’re numb from it, and so you chase that numbing feeling, and that’s what I did,” he said.

“While under the influence I was a dangerous person. I’d rob and steal from people that loved me, kind of just as a way to push them away. I felt like I didn’t deserve their love.”

Wahlberg ended up in the juvenile justice system, and by the time he was 17 years old he was on his way to serve a five-year sentence in state prison. After completing his sentence, he picked up a drink again on his first day out.

“It’s like being dropped off on another planet,” he recalled. “I didn’t understand the world anymore. I understood prison.”

He lasted six months on the streets before he was arrested again and received a six- to nine-year prison sentence. Knowing he would be older than 30 years old if he spent nine years in prison, Wahlberg tried “to create an illusion that I’m trying to become rehabilitated” in an effort to be released early.

“The only person going for it was the Catholic priest, Father Jim Freitas, the greatest man I’ve ever met in my life,” Wahlberg said.

“He approached me and he said, ‘Hey, I hear good things. I hear you’re trying to change your life. I have a job opening in the chapel,’” he shared. “Gives me a job in the chapel and within weeks tells me excitedly that Mother Teresa was coming to the prison. And I’m like, ‘Fantastic! That’s so great! Who’s Mother Teresa?’”

Wahlberg said that he now knows, at 58, that “she was sent there for me.”

“Without a doubt in my mind,” he said. “I believe that there were breadcrumbs along the way in my life that I just never saw and I just kept running in the other direction away from God because I was raised with the ‘God’s going to get you’ [mentality] — that’s what I was raised on. Nobody ever told me God loved me, that Jesus died for me, nobody ever told me that. She gets up and says that God loves you. That Jesus Christ died for you. And there was a moment when she was speaking that it was just me and her.”

After this profound experience, Wahlberg recalled spending the night tossing and turning thinking about her words. The next morning he ran to Freitas and told him that he wanted to know more about this God that Mother Teresa spoke of — a God who loved him.

From that moment, Freitas began to catechize Wahlberg in preparation for his confirmation.

“He started to teach me lovingly about our faith and about our Jesus,” he said.

A few months later, Wahlberg received the news that he was transferring prisons. He ran to Freitas concerned.

Wahlberg recalled: “He picked the phone and he called the priest at the other prison and he said, ‘Hey Father, Father Freitas here. I got a special delivery FedEx package that’s coming to you. His name is Jim Wahlberg and this is where we are in the journey.’”

“These [were] loving reflections of Jesus Christ, these men of God, one at a time, the three of them that passed me off until the day I made my confirmation in prison.”

Jim Wahlberg signs posters at the premiere of "Jesus Thirsts: The Miracle of the Eucharist" in Orange County, California. Credit: Alexis Walkenstein
Jim Wahlberg signs posters at the premiere of “Jesus Thirsts: The Miracle of the Eucharist” in Orange County, California. Credit: Alexis Walkenstein

A powerful conversion, but still a process

Wahlberg admitted that he still faced challenges after getting out of prison. He fell from the faith and got caught up in the things of the world. His wife and daughter encouraged him to attend a Catholic retreat, and it was there that he felt Jesus’ “arms around me again.”

After this experience, he began to dive back into the Mass and his faith.

“I started participating in my faith and putting effort into this relationship with Jesus, that I profess to love, and that all for me starts on my knees,” he said.

Now, Wahlberg visits prisons and speaks to the inmates about his testimony and his faith. He called these experiences “one of the greatest honors of my life.”

As for what he hopes people will take away from this movie? “An intimate encounter with Jesus Christ in the Eucharist,” he said.

“My hope and my prayer is that it will cause folks to do more investigation and to spend a little time with the Eucharist, spend a little time with the Blessed Sacrament, spend a little more time with your family, and a little more time talking about our beautiful faith.”

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Jim Wahlberg on new film and powerful conversion: Mother Teresa ‘was sent there for me’