Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Saturday, June 24, 2017

J.F. Pisani

Emma’s father was ecstatic. He was a proud man — proud of his daughter and proud of her achievements. He was convinced she would be awarded a Fulbright Scholarship someday and, who knows, possibly a Nobel Prize in the Something-or-Other category.

She wasn’t even 13, but had already won national recognition for her work with Odyssey of the Mind. She was also an extremely talented dancer who took lessons in ballet, jazz, hip hop and ballroom. Then, there was the piano and the violin, or maybe it was the cello. Soccer was a passion, not to mention softball. In fact, there was so much she was doing that my brain was starting to throb listening to him talk about her accomplishments.

pisani gratitude 2 webEmma was a fortunate young woman — except for one thing. And it was a very big thing. This wasn’t simply a case of over-involvement, which is an affliction many children suffer nowadays. This was a case of disordered priorities because, you see, church and catechism classes weren’t on the activities calendar posted on their refrigerator.

Her family no longer went to Mass, and I had to wonder, “Did God become irrelevant?” Or had all the extracurricular activities forced the family to forget God in the pursuit of success and honors they thought would get her into a good college someday? Centuries ago, Thomas Aquinas identified the pursuit of prestige as one of the major obstacles to God.

Unfortunately, they don’t give out trophies and awards for spiritual development, although when I was in third grade, I knew my Baltimore Catechism cold, word for word, and, as a reward, Sister Mary Joseph gave me a glow-in-the-dark plastic baby Jesus, which I still take out every Christmas to display prominently and proudly on the mantel.

And I still remember who made me. (God made me.) And equally important: “Q. Why did God make you? A. God made me to know him, to love him and to serve him in this world, and to be happy with him forever in the next.” Those are simple lessons Emma hasn’t learned.

Our priorities quickly become disoriented when God isn’t at the top of the list. One of my friends who hasn’t been to Mass in a year tells me that Jesus understands all the work she has to do and the commitments she has to keep with her elderly mother and the activities her two sons are involved in, including several sports, music and Latin competitions. Jesus understands?

We’re all familiar with the phenomenon of the kid who goes to Catholic school and Mass until college comes along and his spiritual life ends. Today, however, an increasing number of young people don’t even know the basics because parents think other things are more important.

Another of my friends takes her daughter to all kinds of anti-Trump protests, which has become a popular pastime for them. They, too, stopped attending Mass and religious instructions a long time ago. I told her the solutions lie in the tabernacle, not in the White House or political movements.

It’s very simple. When children don’t get instruction in their faith and can’t turn to God because they have no relationship, they look elsewhere for the answers to life and to the longing that only God can satisfy. They turn to pleasure, possessions, sex, drugs, recognition and all the other opiates that dull our spiritual longing.

You’ve seen the statistics. For the most part, the Millennial Generation does not identify with formal faith. There are many reasons, but, in the end, I suspect it’s because, as parents, we placed more importance on worldly ambition and success than on Christ. The Odyssey of the Mind is a wonderful thing, but we should never forget the odyssey of the soul.

Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

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I've always envied people who can say, “I am blessed.” To be honest, they annoy me. They annoy me because I’m convinced they have something I don't have — more savings in their 401(k), more successful kids, an Audi SQ5 SUV with Quattro four-wheel drive, a luxury Swiss watch like a Patek Philippe and a job where people are appreciated, respected and overpaid. 

I suspect what they actually have is a different outlook on life. Comparing yourself to others can lead down the road to envy, covetousness and a lot of negative thinking that prevents you from appreciating all God has given you. You’ll spend your nights awake, staring at the ceiling and wondering why your daughter didn’t get into Harvard Law School when your next-door neighbor’s kid did. Or why she came in third place in the pre-school dance competition instead of first.

God, of course, has a way of putting it all in perspective. On a day when I was feeling sorry for myself, I met a guy who was about to lose his job, then I met a woman whose pay had been cut 30 percent, then I met a fellow whose son had to undergo psychological tests because he was getting into fights with other kids in kindergarten and then I met a man whose wife had just been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness.

It became quite obvious that God was really trying to tell me something: Stop whining and be thankful for what you have. Count your blessings. And pray for those who need help. At one point, the fellow who was going to lose his job and was fighting with his wife about how they’d support their family said to me, “I’m blessed.” To which I wanted to respond, “You’re nuts.” I just couldn’t see things the way he could. Life seems to be divided into two groups. Those who think they’re blessed and those who get satisfaction complaining about what they don’t have — instead of rejoicing over what they do have.

God blesses us in different ways. My flaw has always been comparing myself to the person who has more than I do instead of comparing myself to those who have less. There are others with much less than we have who’d be grateful for only a small portion of our prosperity.

My father, who was a recovering alcoholic in AA, would often say, “You have to develop the attitude of gratitude.” I’d sheepishly nod my head in agreement, still wondering how I could get a Chevy Camaro to replace the battered Ford Fairlane with body rot that I drove to high school. If I had that Camaro, my dating life would vastly improve. The cheerleaders would look at me. Yes, so many wonderful things were contingent on that one possession.

In later years, my aspirations changed. My life would be better if only I got a promotion, a larger house, a hair transplant.

Something strange, however, happened over Christmas, sort of a spiritual illumination like Scrooge had. One morning while I was looking out over the snow-covered White Mountains, I asked myself, “What more do I need?” The answer was quick in coming: Nothing. Then, I asked myself, “What more do I want?” That answer was somewhat complicated, although much of what I want I certainly don’t need. Separating our wants from our needs is a big step in learning how to count our blessings.

One of my daughters always wants more, and she has been getting it in her career and personal life. She hates to admit that she grew up in a Cape Cod with one bathroom shared by three sisters, a mother, a father and a collie. Despite her successes, there’s an underlying dissatisfaction, because she has yet to realize all our longing is ultimately spiritual longing that can’t be satisfied with possessions and earthly attractions whose luster quickly fades.

Dad was right. The attitude of gratitude is an absolute necessity for joy and peace, regardless of your circumstances. The only thing we take into the next life, a friend once told me, are acts of love, not the tax-deductible donations, not our possessions, not our diplomas and citations, but genuine acts of love that require sacrifice.

Understand that principle and you’ll be able to sit down and count your blessings and truly say, “I am blessed.”

Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

pisani traffic apr webIt was late Friday afternoon, much too late to be leaving for New Hampshire on a trip that would take us four and a half hours, but most likely five, depending on the number of times we’d have to stop for the dog ... or me.

Interstate 91 was already heavy with cars heading north for a weekend of skiing. I left work early, thinking I’d have a clear shot through Massachusetts, Vermont and then New Hampshire, but I was wrong. Still miles from Springfield, we were stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

“What the heck is holding us up?” I grumbled to my wife.

“There must be an accident,” she said.

The middle lane was barely moving, and everyone was frantically trying to pass an old Cadillac that was crawling along. I could feel my blood pressure rising and tension tightening my stomach. I finally made my move and pulled out to pass.

“Who’s driving 40-miles-an-hour?”

When I got beside the Cadillac, I was about to press on the horn, roll down the window and deliver a few choice words ... until I saw a bumper sticker on the car that said, “Help America — Pray the Rosary.” And dangling from the rearview mirror were rosary beads. I felt like a hot-headed fool. In that moment, I said a silent Hail Mary for the older woman driver, who was clearly anxious as speeding motorists raced past.

Our driving styles differed, but we were kindred spirits. I have the same bumper sticker on the back of my SUV, along with rosary beads hanging from the rearview mirror. I realize now you can’t judge someone by her driving abilities — and I’m sure Jesus doesn’t.

I’m also sure the bumper sticker on my car leaves people puzzled. When they see me weaving in and out at rush hour, they probably snicker, “Pray the rosary? Help America? ... Help yourself, buddy!” OK, I confess that I have occasional problems with patience, and the more appropriate bumper sticker might be the one that says, “No Jesus, no peace.”

Nevertheless, I’m proud of my bumper sticker because it’s a way to give witness. As Catholics, we’re called upon to give witness in ways large and small. I’m inspired by the hope that someone somewhere will read the bumper sticker and realize that America can only be saved by prayer — not by politicians, the media, celebrities or another law.

At work, I have a menagerie of religious statues on my computer station, including St. Joseph, Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Our Lady of Guadalupe and a bobblehead of Pope Francis. In case of spiritual emergency, there’s also a bottle of holy water from St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Perhaps that’s excessive, but I believe in pushing the limits.

My co-workers may look at me suspiciously and think I’m a religious fanatic who wants to impose his views on them. But you never know how or when you’ll plant the seed in another person who sees your cross necklace, prayer book or rosary beads. Those seemingly inconsequential things can have a profound effect that we’re unaware of.

While we still have religious freedom of expression in America, we should take advantage of it, because there’s an aggressive and growing movement of people who would deny that right to Catholics.

Moreover, we shouldn’t be afraid to let people know we’re believers, whether it’s on the job, at the dinner table or on the ski slopes. Evangelizing can be doing something as simple as saying, “God bless you” or telling people in distress that you’ll pray for them.

We’re all called to evangelize, and when you open yourself up to Christ’s grace and he enlists you as a worker in the vineyard, he’ll use you countless times during the day to plant the seed in people he wants to reach. You may not see the fruits of your labors until the next life, but you can be sure the results will defy your expectations.

So take advantage of every opportunity to bring Christ to people at work, at home ... and in bumper-to-bumper traffic.

JOE PISANI of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

WORK LIFE

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The expensive fitness-tracker watch I gave my wife Sandy for her birthday was on the bureau instead of her wrist. Was she abandoning our conjugal commitment to physical fitness? Maybe I should have given her a turbo-charged German vacuum cleaner instead. Or tapped into my flagging 401(k) and bought her a MINI Cooper. After all, it was a big birthday.

Once upon a time, this woman was obsessed with surpassing the American Heart Association’s recommended goal of walking 10,000 steps a day, and very often she tallied more than 20,000 steps by the time she put her head on the pillow. I don’t know how she did it, but I’m convinced she was motivated by an intense desire to outperform me.

Sometimes I’d find her running in place in the kitchen; other times, I’d go to bed and she’d still be exercising downstairs. For my part, I made an effort to put in as many steps during the workday so that I could satisfy the demands of my tracker by walking at least 250 steps an hour. I just hoped the boss wasn’t wondering about all that physical movement when I should have been chained to my work station.

OK, I admit that we’re both a little obsessive when it comes to exercise, but the experts say it adds years to your life.

One report I read from Dr. Oz — or maybe it was Dr. Phil or Dr. Seuss — said that regular exercise cuts the risk of colon cancer by 60 percent, the risk of Alzheimer’s by 40 percent, the risk of heart disease and high blood pressure by 40 percent and the risk of type II diabetes by 58 percent, along with preventing breast cancer and strokes. So why was her fitness watch on the bureau, instead of wrapped around her wrist so she could register her steps, heart rate, physical exertion, calories, stairs and miles?

“I’m tired of being a slave to a fitness tracker,” she said. “There are more important things in life.”

“What’s more important than taking care of your body?” I asked. The answer came to mind immediately — taking care of your soul. Your body dies. Your soul is immortal. Or to paraphrase Jesus, “Don’t worry about those who can harm the body, worry about those who can harm the soul.”

Can you imagine what saints we’d become if we put as much time and effort into spiritual exercise? My friends who wear fitness trackers are such fanatics they can’t resist boasting about their weekly progress. I wonder, however, whether they pay the same attention to their souls.

Not to boast — I’m boasting — but during one of my productive weeks, I logged 859 active minutes, 63.04 miles,133,446 steps, 23,497 calories and 158 floors. The thought of praying 859 minutes never crossed my mind. And what about spending an hour in eucharistic adoration or saying five decades of the rosary for 20 minutes or, most important of all, going to daily Mass?

With a program of regular spiritual fitness, I bet we could cut the risk of depression and anxiety by 75 percent, marital discord by 70 percent, family unrest by 65 percent, workplace agita by 63 percent, unhappiness by 85 percent, impurity by 80 percent and swearing by 95 percent.

Training our souls is far more important than exercising our bodies. Our bodies decay and die, but our souls last forever, so let’s do what’s necessary to get them in shape.

If we could see the condition of our souls, many of us would be shocked. I once read about a man who had a near-death experience and got a review of his life in intimate detail and suddenly realized he’d done the bare minimum for Christ. All that really had concerned him was making money, getting ahead and being a success in the eyes of the world. You might say he was a 98-pound spiritual weakling. The experience changed his life and his priorities.

I started to rethink my own goals. Instead of getting up at 4:25 a.m. to exercise before heading to the train for work, I got up at 4:25 and, in the silence of the morning, began to meditate and tried to listen to the still, small voice of God. I took out my rosary beads and said the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. On the way to the train station, I said the Joyful and Luminous Mysteries of the rosary. While I was on the train for the hourand-45-minute ride into the city, I said the Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries in addition to praying the Divine Office on my iPad.

At lunch, I crossed the street and went to midday Mass at St. Agnes. It certainly helped me during the workday. Whenever the challenges of the job or my co-workers or clients got a little too demanding and threatened to push me into emotional crisis, I said a prayer for peace ... and it was restored. The benefits were certainly there.

Cardio and weight training may help your body, but it’s good to remember the spiritual exercises that benefit your soul: prayer, fasting, meditation, sacrifices, Mass, eucharistic adoration and the rosary. I still exercise regularly, but now I’m more concerned about cracking a sweat ... spiritually.

JOE PISANI of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

beggars 1233291 640When I arrive for work at the Chrysler Building, a group of panhandlers is standing across the street outside St. Agnes Church, waiting for handouts from people leaving morning Mass. One fellow is in a wheelchair, another has a cane and another has his Starbucks Venti-sized cup held out so you can toss in some coins, or, even better, a dollar bill.

By midday, the morning shift is gone and there’s a new group at the doorway, which includes a woman in walker, a man with a sign that says he can’t work because of a disability and a fellow who just smiles at everyone and greets them with, “Hi, buddy, have a nice day. Can you spare some change?”

Panhandlers, or, to use the more biblical term, “beggars,” provoke a lot of anger in modern America. A few times when I was waiting for the morning train, I gave a buck to a guy who had a sign that said he was an out-of-work veteran — and my fellow commuters tore into me. They said I was a fool. They insisted the so-called hard-luck vet probably had a bigger house than I do and was driving a BMW, while I have to get by in a Toyota with 100,000 miles on the odometer.

They scoffed and said I had committed a grave offense: “encouraging scam artists.” It was a lot of abuse for the alleged crime of handing someone a dollar bill. (Just to set the record straight, I’m no paragon of charitable giving.)

Maybe the guy wasn’t down on his luck, but you can’t conduct a needs test every time someone asks for a handout. I’m also convinced our society has a serious moral blindness if begging provokes reasonably well-off people to anger.

A friend who teaches at a Catholic high school recently took his class to the inner city to do volunteer work, and the response of some students to the disadvantaged people they met was unsettling: They should get jobs. They should stop spending their money on drugs. They’ve been on welfare for generations.

Pope Francis has been vocal about the importance of charity. During one audience at St. Peter’s, he said, “When going down the street, we cross a person in need or a poor man comes knocking at the door of our house ... in these instances what is my reaction? Do I turn away? Do I move on? Or do I stop to talk and take an interest? If you do this, there will always be someone who says, ‘This one is crazy, talking to a poor person.’”

Christ was pretty explicit about giving. One thing he never said to beggars was, “You’re a fraud. You have no business asking these hard-working people for money.” (And he didn’t obsess over whether they had a flat-screen TV and a six-pack of Heineken in the refrigerator.)

However, Christ did say, “Give to everyone who asks you, and if anyone takes what belongs to you, do not demand it back.”

All around the city, you’ll meet people in need, lying on the sidewalks in sleeping bags, wandering the streets with no shoes and rummaging through recycling bins and trash cans. People who are down on their luck.

In New York, it has become such an epidemic that exasperated city officials have suggested a solution: If you stop giving to them, they’ll go away. Last year, one of the tabloids fueled the debate by writing a story about a panhandler who, with his dog, made $200 an hour and went home to a rent-controlled apartment.

We live in a world where there’s clearly an inequitable distribution of wealth, as Pope Francis often says. Very often, those of us who have enough want more and think that we’ve been unfairly denied when we don’t get it. Even if you factor in the need to save for retirement and pay for college educations, many of us still have sufficient resources to live good lives and give charitably.

What I’ve noticed is that greedy people — in every income bracket — are never satisfied with what they have. Studies on philanthropy often show that the per capita rate of giving is generally the lowest in states where the per capita income is the highest. Part of the problem is that we’re too busy comparing ourselves with people who have more than us. If we compared ourselves to people who have less than us, we might be more compassionate — and charitable.

This much we can be sure of: God is love and God is all about giving with a cheerful heart. And always remember that he’ll reward us for what we give to others, far beyond our wildest dreams.

Joe Pisani of Orange is a writer whose work has appeared in Catholic publications nationwide. He and his wife Sandy have four daughters.

Family life

J.F. Pisani

This is my life as a commuter: I dash to the train and I dash from the train, and then I have to make my way through Grand Central Terminal, weaving in and out and around people who are talking on their cell phones or taking “selfies.”

Do you have any idea how frustrating it is when you’re racing to catch the 5:41 at rush hour and the only thing that stands between you and a desperately needed ride home is a phalanx of people taking pictures of themselves?

Last week I got stuck behind a young woman who was walking in front of me, making a video of herself while talking to her smartphone camera. There have also been perilous occasions when I’ve almost had an eye poked out by someone’s selfie stick when that person was trying to get a photo with the terminal ceiling in the background. Is this a symptom of the narcissism epidemic that afflicts our society or is it just old-fashioned fun mixed with some self-absorption?

Pope Francis, himself, has been known to take a selfie now and then, to the delight of his “fans.” Young people visiting the Vatican typically find an accommodating pontiff when they raise their cellphones and grin broadly. Could you ask for a greater celebrity than the pope to have your picture taken with?

He certainly trumps other celebrities, many of whom have made an industry out of self-portraits, such as Kim Kardashian, who sent pictures of herself in provocative poses to millions of followers every day ... until she was robbed in a heist at a Paris hotel and lost a $4.5 million ring that she posted on social media.

Pop star Selena Gomez boasts 100 million followers on Instagram, the photo-sharing site, followed by Taylor Swift with 91.4 million and Beyonce with 85.3 million. What does it all mean? Celebrities aren’t exactly the best role models and many young people are following their example. Blame technology, blame the self-esteem movement, blame reality TV. Plus, I’m beginning to worry about my four daughters, who have never been camera shy, and now their toddlers are being enlisted in the cause. Every week I get several dozen photos and videos – which I truly cherish – of my two new grandsons and granddaughter.

However, I wonder what the eventual effect will be of being exposed to the camera so often. What happens when parents have a camera constantly in their kids’ faces? Call me crazy but I’m convinced the babies are starting to respond to the camera with fake smiles. When they see it, they behave differently. This is probably how the Kardashians got their start.

One study found that young women can spend up to five hours a week taking pictures of themselves. The survey said women age 16 to 25 devote about 16 minutes to each picture-taking session three times a day. That’s a lot of self-absorption. Half of the 2,000 women in the study admitted they take selfies “all the time.”

Experts say members of the younger generation often suffer from what is known as “selfie-esteem,” which means their level of confidence in their bodies is determined by the number of “likes” they get on photos they post on social media.

Research by Ohio State University concluded that men who often posted selfies online had high scores on tests to measure psychopathy and narcissism, which is associated with an inflated self-image. There’s even a clinical term for the condition – Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

Pope Francis had something to say about the topic. “We have ‘mirror men and women’ (who are wedded to their own image), who are closed in on themselves and are constantly looking at themselves. These are religious narcissists, right?” the Pope said in a homily last year.

Narcissism is an insidious syndrome, one that afflicts those who “close their hearts out of fear, insecurity or vanity.” The pope said that what they truly need is the Holy Spirit to make them docile and open to love, so they can move beyond their self-obsession and develop empathy and concern for others.

It’s time to put down the smartphones … and ask for help.

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.

Family life

Peter and Julie always wanted to have children, and later in life, they adopted a little boy born of a mother who was a drug addict. The first months were difficult because Christopher had to stay in the hospital until his condition could be stabilized, but afterwards they traveled across the country to their home to begin a new life together, hoping love could repair the damage done even before birth.

The experience taught them about living a day at a time and learning to love at a deeper level, not to mention the importance of patience and compassion.

As Christopher grew older, they realized he had developmental problems and over the years, they took him for a series of tests with psychologists, educators and doctors. Eventually, he started special education classes and began to exhibit behavior that seemed uncharacteristic for a little boy – he always wanted to talk about God.

Whenever they passed a church, he would beg his father to go inside so he could talk to God and ask him questions. And when they took him to Mass, he seemed to display a reverence and understanding that was beyond his years. Sometimes he would stare silently at the crucifix or the Sacred Heart of Jesus. When they’d leave, he would often comment on the church and say things like, “I like it here; can we go back again?”

One day he was sick with a nasty cold, so he and Peter spent the day on the porch making fanciful creations with his Legos. Then, while their backs were to each other, Christopher asked his father, “Does God walk?”

Peter recalls that he “offered the quickest clichéd answer that came to mind” and responded, “God is always walking with you, Christopher.”

Not quite satisfied with that platitude, Christopher looked for confirmation, so he picked up Peter’s iPhone and hit the home button, and asked, “Siri, does God walk?”

Siri was even more evasive, and as Peter recalled, “She expressed a policy of avoiding comment on issues of faith.” Not to be deterred, Christopher posed a different challenge and asked, “Siri, show me a picture of Mary.”

He later asked Siri to show him pictures of God. In spiritual matters, his inquisitiveness knew no bounds.

Eventually, Christopher took his fascination with God to preschool, and his parents got a call from a teacher who was concerned about what he characterized as the boy’s morbid interest in God and heaven. What could be morbid about God and heaven?

Should there, could there, be prohibitions in preschool for talking about God? Were they afraid Christopher would evangelize the other kids or say something that would incite non-believing parents to protest? Nevertheless, the Holy Spirit goes where he will – even to preschool.

Peter was at a loss. When did it become unacceptable for children to talk about God? Would the system, which is known for suppressing expressions of prayer and religious belief, come down on his 4-year-old son the same way it did on young people who read the Bible, who talked about Jesus or who mentioned the Ten Commandments whether in elementary school, high school or college or on the playing field? He wondered: Was the teacher suggesting that Christopher be instructed not to talk about God?

A team of five specialists asked to meet with Peter and Julie about their son’s progress, and they feared the worst. But as it turned out, the meeting went well and Christopher got a reprieve once they realized his father was a journalist committed to freedom of speech – even when it came to God. (Sadly, freedom of speech in America usually only applies to people who attack God and religion.)

I’m convinced God was acting through this little boy to show us the absurdity of our ways. I thought of Jesus’ words, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and learned and revealed them to infants.”

Our so-called enlightened secular society, which prides itself on “inclusiveness,” isn’t inclusive at all because it has excluded the most essential thing from our lives – God.

A few days after I heard Christopher’s story, someone sent me an email titled, “A Prayer to Save America,” which said in part,

“O merciful God, we cry to You for pardon and for mercy.

We are an unbelieving and perverse generation.

We are disobedient, disloyal and ungrateful to You.

We have excluded You from our homes, our schools, our places of business.

We are no longer worthy to be called Your children.

Merciful Father, forgive us and spare America.”

J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.