Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut
Tuesday, April 25, 2017

J.F. Pisani

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.


pisani fitness 2

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.

Pisani 2001 4C adj 75x75Column name: Family life

After my father passed away on Christmas Eve 10 years ago, we confronted the arduous task of going through everything he collected over the years because he was, in the words of my mother, a “junk collector.”

I, however, thought of him in more sentimental terms: He was the Amadeus Mozart of tag sales, flea markets and estate sales. He was a man who understood the value of old tools, scrap wood, vintage door knobs, hinges, clamps and pieces of twine – and when he died, we had to get rid of it all. We couldn’t give it away and we couldn’t sell it, because sometimes we didn’t even know what it was or what it did. In the end, we filled three dumpsters.

He also had the habit of hiding money around the house: $100 in the rafters, $50 behind the oil tank, a coffee can of change beneath his workbench. I imagine that living through the Great Depression gives you a different perspective on life and makes you realize everything that can go wrong. Quite simply, he wanted to be prepared.

What inspired me, however, was something I found in his bedroom. On his bureau was a five-day holy candle that he kept burning, probably to the chagrin of my mother since the smoke caused a black smudge on the ceiling. Nearby was a statue of the Blessed Mother, a crucifix and a notebook filled with names – hundreds of names that he had collected over the years. Only later did I realize they were people that he prayed for every day.

There were aunts and uncles who had passed away, old friends he knew from the East Side of Bridgeport, a neighbor’s child who had emotional problems and got in trouble with the law, his family members, my four daughters, buddies who were suffering illnesses like cancer and ALS, along with countless other people. He clearly believed in the power of prayer, and I’m sure it was something he learned after 25 years sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. You see, he spent the first half of his adult life as an active alcoholic until, through the grace of God, he found AA and started to attend meetings regularly with a priest who was in the program. In those rooms, he learned a few fundamental lessons – don’t drink,  go to meetings, let go and let God, stay sober a day at a time … and never underestimate the value of prayer, especially unselfish prayers for others.

There are always people we meet during the day who need our prayers. Many of us pray for ourselves and our families, but prayer isn’t something that should be hoarded. It’s meant to be given freely to others, even complete strangers. Our prayers bring them much-needed graces and move them closer to Christ, especially when their suffering, pain and loneliness can lead to despair.

The litany of problems we hear during the day gives us many opportunities to say four powerful words, “I’ll pray for you” … to the woman whose son has cancer, the man who has to go for “tests,” the fellow who lost his job and can’t support his family and the mother whose daughter is having a troubled pregnancy and might miscarry.

I have a long prayer list now, too, and I keep copies of it in my prayer book and near a votive candle and statues of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. The list has the usual suspects, including my grandchildren, my daughters and sons-in-law, my wife and our extended family, but also people I’ve encountered in my travels or from reading the news. They are people whose situations are so desperate that their only hope is prayer.

There’s a lot of pain in the world, and just as many occasions to bring the peace and healing power of Jesus to others. Once you open yourself to the possibility of doing God’s will in your daily life, opportunities will present themselves like never before.

Even if you don’t see a miraculous recovery because of your prayer, this much is certain: Something miraculous has occurred beyond your human vision. The graces that people receive from our prayers – each and every prayer – accomplish things through Christ that far exceed our limited understanding. Someday when you see your life from the Divine Healer’s perspective, you’ll realize all the good that you did when you weren’t even aware of the effect that a kind word, a smile, a prayer, a sympathetic ear and a little encouragement could have. And you’ll surely be rewarded far beyond your imagination.

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

Family Life By J.F. Pisani

At the back of the church during weekday Mass, a mother I’m told is an immigrant and her two daughters sat down beside me. She corralled them into the pew on either side of her. One was about 14 and the other 12, and I wondered what they thought about going to Mass on a weekday during a school vacation.

They seemed to have that disaffected look of teenagers, a little uncertainty, a little awkwardness and a little of the sentiment that suggests the question, “Why do I have to do this?”

With four daughters of my own and a long history of failed attempts at influencing their behavior through my power of example and countless failed attempts at telling them what to do, I realized this young mother was going for the gold medal in parenthood ... but that she’d probably settle for bronze. When we started to say the Gloria, one daughter wasn’t responding. She was standing there, staring into space as teenagers are known to do, until her mother poked her and pointed to her lips. The young woman responded immediately, word for word – she knew all the words. “Glory to God in the highest and on Earth ...” The mother practically shouted it out in broken English, proud to know the language and even prouder to be praising God.

When we finished, she wrapped her arms around each daughter and pulled her close to her and kissed her. Nothing, of course, embarrasses a teenager more than a PDA, otherwise known as a public display of affection, especially from their mother. But probably not as bad as from their father.

Before the Gospel, we sang the response to the Alleluia and again the woman’s voice reverberated through the church. Some people looked at her with amusement. She had no qualms about praising God, and there was even a rosary wrapped around her wrist.

Standing, sitting, kneeling, the girls knew what they were supposed to do at every point in the liturgy, and it was apparent their mother raised them that way. She was clearly a Catholic “tiger mom” with a lot of love. When one of the daughters did a sort of half-hearted kneel, with her backside on the seat, the mother poked her in the ribs and she straightened up. The woman was a little like a drill sergeant, and it was apparent the girls were accustomed to it, and occasionally they responded even before their mother prodded them.

At the sign of peace, she gripped my hand, vigorously shook it and smiled broadly. The girls did the same. In that moment, I saw a loving family, a family committed to Christ and proud of their faith. In many ways, the woman reminded me of my mother when I was growing up. Every occasion was an occasion for learning, especially at Mass. When we said the name of Jesus, my mother gestured to me that I should bow my head as an act of reverence, which is something I do to this day. And she was always directing me to stand, sit, kneel and, worst of all, sing.

That’s what parenting is all about. Disciplining and instructing with love. It takes commitment and a lot of energy, but the results pay off, especially if your kids grow up to be reverent young adults who understand and love their faith. And even if they fall away, you’ve planted the seed and someday they’ll return. A fundamental education in the faith is so very important. That’s where my wife and I made our mistake when we were young parents. We weren’t persistent enough. It took a while before we got into the spiritual groove and realized how necessary it is to educate your children in the Catholic faith.

We eventually began praying together as a family, and every Sunday when we were driving home from my parents’ after dinner, we said the rosary in the car. My wife Sandy still uses any occasion to tell the girls how important it is to practice their faith. She also encourages them constantly to have a conscious contact with God and talk to him throughout the day. All of us, children and adults, should have a personal friendship with Jesus and be comfortable talking with him.

Make no mistake about it. Everything in secular culture will try to undermine your kids’ faith. This is a responsibility we have to take seriously because it’s our obligation as parents and as Catholics. As they say, the family that prays together stays together. It’s true, especially if you pray with and for one another. There’s no greater lesson in life.

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

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