FIRE FOR LIFE: John O'Leary shares how his faith played integral role in his recovery, mission

t's not unusual to have childhood friends in your wedding. But when more than half of your grade school class is in attendance? That's a sign of a special bond.

Playing with matches and gasoline resulted in a horrific accident at the age of 9 that burned John O'Leary over 100 percent of his body. He was certain to die. The accident was a redefining moment for the class of 1991 at St. Clement of Rome School in Des Peres.

"It certainly brought our class together," said O'Leary, 38, a 1995 graduate of De Smet Jesuit High School. "It led to many of my grade school classmates to being nurses and other healing professions. It had a significant bearing on what many of them did professionally. People are coming out saying, 'I chose this profession because of the nurses who were coming into the room, telling us what you were going through.'"

Today, O'Leary, a member of Holy Redeemer Parish in Webster Groves, cites faith and prayer as key elements that led him to where he is now. He recently wrote a book, "On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life" and speaks all over the world. Through his story, O'Leary calls on people to make intentional choices to live "radically inspired" lives every day.

A faith community launched into action the day of his accident, Jan. 17, 1987, when parishioners at St. Clement gathered that snowy night for a prayer service at church.

Hearing about that gathering years later, O'Leary was stunned. "Think about it — people have plans," he said. "It's snowing. There's every reason in the world not to be there."

To represent the family, his father, Dennis, drove through seven inches of snow, with the warning that his son might not be alive when he returned to the hospital. When Dennis O'Leary arrived at the church, the lot was full — he had to park in the fire lane. In the church, there was standing room only.

"This impromptu prayer service from our community not only brought my dad out of the hospital and back into the community, but brought the Holy Spirit into a very difficult, tragic story," John O'Leary said. "What I was told by people who were there, many years later, is that ... people knew no matter what happened next that God was in it, and it was going to be OK."

Prayer was a key component through the next five months of recovery in the hospital. But those prayers weren't just to help him; they were to "inform and inspire the next steps of the individuals offering the prayer," O'Leary wrote in his book.

"I survived because of the actions and encouragement of remarkable people by my side every step of the way, pushing me to fight, imploring me to believe and empowering me to take ownership of my life," he wrote. "And the little boy expected to die is now abundantly alive."

Do you want to die?

People frequently tell O'Leary he must have had an incredible faith to get through what he encountered. That was certainly the case, and it hit home when he saw his mother for the first time in the ER.

"My mom walks in and I'm naked and skinless and dying," he recalled. "She's holding my hand and I say, 'Mom, am I going to die?'"

A mother's instinct is to comfort her child. But in this circumstance, Susan O'Leary took a different approach. Instead of providing false hope, she asked her son, "Baby, do you want to die? It's your choice, not mine."

John O'Leary was incredulous. "Of course, I don't want to die," he recalled telling her.

"Then you take the hand of God, you walk the journey, and you fight like you've never fought before," she told him.

Those were tough words, but everyone knew a tough battle stood ahead of him. Fueled by faith, they were just the words he needed to hear. "I knew it was going to be OK," O'Leary said. "Because I made a commitment to fight, holding the hand of Jesus, knowing the best was yet to come and He would not fail us."

One of O'Leary's favorite Scripture passages is from the Book of Sirach, which touches on making the choice between life and death. He has taken that message to heart, encouraging others in his talks to live intentional lives.

"If you don't choose life, through either omission or commission, you choose death," he said. "We don't live accidentally. Purpose is powerful. I think choosing to live is the first step."

A community of faith

The O'Leary family didn't talk much about the fire. Years later, in 1990, Dennis O'Leary was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. When it became difficult to work, he left his job. He had more time to reflect, and in 2006, he and Susan wrote a book, "Overwhelming Odds," about their experiences. More than 70,000 copies have been sold.

At first, John O'Leary wasn't sure he was OK with the project. He didn't know if he wanted his story shared. Plus, the family hadn't talked much about what happened. Now, decades later, his parents were writing a book about it?

After reading it, he saw that the book wasn't just about him. It was about the community of people who supported the family through the ordeal. It also included the perspectives of others who were affected by the fire, including his siblings. There were many examples:

• A family moved out of their home so the O'Leary family would have a place to stay while their house was being reconstructed after the fire. The family who opened their home stayed in a hotel;

• As his parents lived with John at St. John's Mercy Hospital for five months, a constant stream of people came to sit by the family's side and provide comfort in their time of need;

• Blood donations were made;

• He received moral support during his hospital stay from the late sportscaster Jack Buck and sports figures, including former St. Louis Blues left winger Gino Cavallini.

And the list goes on.

"It changed the way I viewed the scars," he said. It's not always the big things in life that matter, he realized, but the small moments that add up.

"Like snowflakes, it led to an accumulation where God is present."

God works through all things

Teaching a child in the ways of the faith is one thing. But eventually the faith has to become that of an adult. Situations become more complex, as O'Leary saw in his work as a chaplain at SSM Health Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital as an adult.

There were many cases in which prayers weren't answered in the way people had hoped.

"What happens when you pray for things that don't come to pass?" he asked. "Where's our loving God? It was further proof to me that He works through all things, and ultimately He bends us toward His will and not ours. In surrendering to that truth, we can realize whether our days are good or bad, tragic or triumphant, that He's in the middle of it and the best is yet to come."

He's seen how God has worked through him, even as he left his career as a real estate developer, now sharing his story with 50,000 people at more than 120 events a year all over the world. It's an opportunity to meet others and share a message through the lens of faith.

Some people say it's easy to see his life as a blessing — married with four kids, active in their parish and school — but there was a lot of heartache in the recovery that came before. It's all in how you look at it, he said.

"We look at our broken world — why are people suffering? But God does His best through tragedy. Think about it in Jesus' suffering — Christ dies on Good Friday, but he returns on Easter Sunday. The same plays out in the world today. For some people, that's three days. Other times, it's decades. Good Fridays come, but Easter Sundays follow, and that gives me peace." 

Words to live by, from "On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life"

• "Life is not about avoiding death; it's about choosing to really live."

• "Stop pretending and begin to see the miracle of your life."

• "Extinguish indifference, ignite potential and discover the power of a purposeful life."

• "Change the way you ask a question to transform the answers you get — and the life you lead."

• "Comfort is popular, but courage saves lives."

• "One life can, and always does, change the world."

• "Fear and love are the two great motivators. While fear suffocates, love liberates." 

Scripture

"Set before you are fire and water; to whatever you choose, stretch out your hand.

Before everyone are life and death, whichever they choose will be given them."

Book of Sirach 15: 16-17 

Books to read

Available at local retailers, and online at Amazon:

"On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life," by John O'Leary www.stlouisreview.com/bxX

"Overwhelming Odds," by Susan and Denny O'Leary www.stlouisreview.com/bxI 

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