Jeff Cavins couldn’t overcome his sense of futility as he picked up the phone.
“Diocese of Sioux Falls,” a receptionist answered.
“Hi, my name’s Jeff. I would like to talk to Bishop Dudley,” Cavins responded.“Just a minute.”
The next voice took Cavins back to his elementary school days and the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington, Minnesota. Born and raised Catholic, the renowned convert-turned-revert had always looked up to pastor Fr. Paul Dudley.
“Every week, he had such a joy about him and a smile when he spoke,” Cavins said. “He knew everybody’s name. There was something about that man that you wanted to be like him.”
Fast-forward a couple decades. Cavins had left the faith and become an evangelical minister. And Fr. Dudley wasn’t Fr. Dudley anymore after being named the sixth Bishop of Sioux Falls, South Dakota in 1978.
But the convivial old priest still remembered everyone’s name. And he happened to be in the office this particular day.
“Bishop Dudley,” he answered.
“Bishop, Jeff Cavins.”
“Jeff Cavins. Was your father Robert?”
“How are you doing?”
“I thought, ‘Wow, the last time I saw this guy, I was probably 13 years old,’” Cavins said. “He remembered me.”
And Cavins remembers Dudley as the priest who’s most impacted his journey back to the faith and into the spotlight as a nationally known public speaker, author, television and radio host, podcaster, pilgrimage leader and catechist. Many Catholics know Cavins for his lumberjack beard, Great Adventure Bible Timeline, shows on EWTN and Relevant Radio and appearances on the Bible in a Year Podcast he helped create.
His home base for much of that work has been The Saint Paul Seminary — the same place Dudley studied to become a priest.
“Throughout the years, I’ve had the opportunity to travel a lot internationally and certainly all around the United States,” Cavins said. “Oftentimes, I end up at seminaries or I end up at the chancery of a diocese, and so you get an idea of what’s going on out there … and you also hear from people around America as to what’s happening in the Twin Cities. I’ve got to tell you that the country looks at The Saint Paul Seminary as one of the real lights that’s shining in America.”
It’s here that Cavins founded the Archbishop Flynn Catechetical Institute for ongoing faith formation for Catholic adults in 2008. Cavins has long served as the institute’s director emeritus and taught several courses there.
He also used his famed Bible Timeline – which has more than 15 accompanying Bible studies – to help seminary alum Fr. Mike Schmitz craft the Bible in a Year, which just topped Apple’s podcast charts for the second time in the past year and is No. 2 on Spotify behind The Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Cavins and Schmitz were recently named two of Our Sunday Visitor’s Catholics of the Year for 2021.
And new this year, Cavins, 64, has taken a step back from the religious pilgrimages he’s been leading with his wife Emily for years. He is now more focused on a different kind of journey – the one from man to disciple to priest.
Cavins is one of the instructors for The Saint Paul Seminary’s inaugural “propaedeutic year.” This year of communal living, structured prayer life, community service and detachment from media and other worldly comforts is designed for men preparing for major seminary.
The Saint Paul Seminary is one of the first in North America to institute the propaedeutic stage.
“I think that the propaedeutic year is critically important, because it helps men figure out what really is the priority in their relationship with the Lord,” Cavins said. “A lot of people feel that maybe they do have a call to the priesthood, and so they sign up for the seminary and they’re OK’d and they jump in, but oftentimes, they haven’t really addressed the first question, and that is not are you called to be a priest, but are you called to be a disciple?”
Cavins is helping the seminary’s propaedeutic-year “aspirants” figure out the answer to that question. His role includes teaching and discussion around discipleship and salvation history.
Oftentimes, [young Catholic men] haven’t really addressed the first question, and that is not are you called to be a priest, but are you called to be a disciple?” — Jeff Cavins
Aspirants will also take part in the Catechetical Institute, which remains one of Cavins’ proudest achievements. More than 2,000 students have graduated from the institute’s “Pillars” program.
“The goal of it is to form people in the faith, and so there are two major books that are important for us,” Cavins said. “The Bible, number one. Number two is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. And it is our goal over two years to bring people through the Catechism so that they understand all that the church teaches.”
Cavins admits he didn’t during his younger years. Before he founded and hosted EWTN’s “Life on the Rock” and “Morning Air” on Relevant Radio, he turned away from Catholicism in favor of the charisma of evangelical, born-again Christianity.
But his study of the Bible unearthed questions he couldn’t shake. And that’s why he called Bishop Dudley.
And before he came back to the Catholic Church, started teaching at Franciscan University of Steubenville and working on several Catholic books, Cavins spent two days at the Sioux Falls rectory at Dudley’s invitation. After much discussion with the bishop, Cavins found himself alone in the adoration chapel at 3 a.m. formally committing to return to the Catholic Church.
“For two days, I talked to [Dudley] and prayed,” Cavins said. “It was because of this man and his holiness and his invitation to return and his guidance and walking with me as I came back.”