Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, February 18, 2018

J.F. Pisani

That April morning in Manhattan when I had coffee with my friend Lenny, we discussed many things. The state of the nation, the state of the world, Donald Trump, Pope Francis, the job market, the stock market and our families.

He said his wife Denise was an agnostic and this saddened him profoundly. (I’ve often thought an agnostic is someone too lazy or too proud to ask God for answers.) Lenny went to church alone, and it was a cause of great suffering in his life. Not even his three kids joined him because their mother believed they should make their own decisions about God. How many times have you heard that? Let the kids decide whether they want to believe in God, whether they want to be baptized, whether they want to be Catholics.

Let me tell you a secret. Left to their own, they’ll make the wrong decision, which is why they have parents to direct them. Otherwise, a secular society that worships celebrities more than God will influence their decision, and it will be the wrong one.

As Lenny shared his story of family squabbles, I did the only thing I could and said, “I’ll pray for her.” I knew if Lenny told her I was praying, it would be divorce court for him and outrage for me, because saying you’ll pray for someone is verboten in America, where people believe change only comes from passing laws. Grace, though, is far more effective than rules and regulations because it comes from God.

pisani 07 0010Months passed and whenever we met, I reminded him I was praying for Denise. Large prayers and small. Novenas, Masses, rosaries. I was sure his and my prayers would make a difference, if not in this life, then in the next. Changes that come from prayer are often imperceptible because God works in his own time and at his own pace, but you can be sure he’s always at work, so never stop praying, especially for conversions.

I lost touch with Lenny until recently, when we had a few minutes to catch up on our jobs, our lives and our families. As I was about to hang up, he said, “I forgot to tell you: Denise is coming to church with us.”

We all have personal stories about the miraculous blessings Jesus showers on us when we pray. And we should share them with others, especially our children and grandchildren, so they realize from an early age that God is listening — that God is listening all the time, even when we’re not talking.

Prayer works. You may not see the results immediately, but you’ll see them. All you have to do is ask; Jesus does the rest. He answers prayers far in excess of our half-sighted expectations. It doesn’t have to be a monumental prayer.

Jesus hears them all, even simple ones like, “Lord, please help that homeless woman begging for change.” You may forget her, but Jesus doesn’t. When you intercede for someone, the person begins to change. Heavenly graces begin to flood the person’s soul. There’s hope.

It’s very simple. Ask Jesus to send graces for people. He knows their needs even before we ask him. Ask help for family members, friends and strangers who are troubled or tormented, and your petition will set in motion a heavenly rescue operation beyond your human comprehension. Saints, angels, Our Lady and Our Lord will get involved.

Just think of the joy you’ll feel someday when you meet people you prayed for in heaven and discover that Jesus took your simple appeal and saved troubled souls wandering in darkness.

For many years, I was one of those people — until changes began in my life that I couldn’t explain. People crossed my path when I needed them the most, and they pointed me toward God. Only years later, when I heard someone sing the Gospel song “Somebody Prayed for Me,” did I understand what had happened:

“I was lost and alone in a cold dark world, no peace of mind, no freedom could I see, but little did I know I had a friend somewhere ... somebody prayed for me. They had me on their mind, they took the time. They fell down on their knees and prayed for me. They had no doubt that God could bring me out, that he could change my life and set me free. I’m so glad someone prayed for me!”

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

pisani hands clasped 300x275pxMany years ago, a little nun from the Sisters of St. Joseph would drill our third-grade class on the Baltimore Catechism, week after week, until we could recite the answers verbatim. It was as close to the Marine Corps as I ever got.

Occasionally, she’d interrupt her lesson to give us some spiritual advice. She said when we had pain or suffering in our lives, we should “offer it up” because Jesus could do wonderful things with our gift. A scraped knee. A stomach ache. A bruised elbow. Hurt feelings. No offering was too small or insignificant.

She said if we offered our suffering to Jesus, it would help him save souls wandering in darkness. It would provide relief to others in pain and despair. It seemed like such a peculiar exchange. We gave Jesus our pain and he could do incomprehensibly good things with it ... and reward us beyond our dreams in the next life.

St. Paul understood. In his letter to the Colossians, he wrote, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the Church.”

As a child, I thought it was such a magical idea; however, as an adult, I’ve often been more self-absorbed with my suffering than with what Jesus can do if I turn it over. Rather than offering it up, I’ve been inclined to complain: “Why me, Lord?” or “Deliver me from this, Lord!” or “Lord, not again!”

I recently had some medical tests, and every day I’d say, “Do I really have to go through this?” Then, I thought of that little nun’s advice. I tried to stop whining and offer it up, hoping good would come from it. Eventually, I reached a point where instead of asking, “Why me, Lord?” I could say, “This is for you, Jesus. Help me make it through.” And Jesus helped carry the cross.

Even more amazing, every day that I was consumed by my small cross, Jesus would put someone in my path who had a considerably larger cross ... and a smile on her face.

There was the woman I saw at Mass in Manhattan whose body was wracked by cancer. She was so frail and thin it seemed a strong wind would blow her over. As she sat praying — because she couldn’t kneel — I wondered what she was saying to Jesus: “Why did you do this to me?” or “Jesus, this is for you. Take my imperfect offering and use it.”

I met a woman who had to walk with two canes because of knee surgery, and every day she traveled back and forth from the Bronx on the subway to get to her job. She smiled when I told her my problem and said she would pray for me.

And then I met a woman who shared her personal story. Five years ago, her husband of one month fell 15 feet off a ladder and suffered a traumatic brain injury. The neuro-surgeons said his injury was one of the worst they’d seen in 15 years of practice. He was in the hospital eight months before they could transfer him to a rehab facility.

 “It took nearly three years for him to fully recover,” she said. “He had to relearn how to breathe, swallow, talk, walk and sit up. He was like an infant doing these things for the first time. Today, he’s a walking miracle. He drives, he’s totally independent and he’s looking for a job.”

Then, she added, “We know that God healed my husband, and we give him all the glory.”

Jesus must have done immensely wonderful things with that offering. Perhaps one of them was to give me encouragement to go another day and offer my little cross for her and her husband. I could have never carried her cross — at least not alone. None of us can. It’s not a test of strength. It’s a test of faith and humility to be able to say, “I’m scared, I can’t do this alone. Jesus, please help me. I offer you my cross.”

We all have crosses, some are heavier than others. Offer them to Christ, and someday, far from this world of suffering, he’ll show you the miracles he performed because of your offerings.

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

A few months ago, we got a disturbing text message from our daughter: “Alphonse died of a massive heart attack.”

“Who’s Alphonse?” I asked my wife.

There was no explanation, so we said a prayer for him and went about our business, until that evening, when our daughter explained he was a cardiologist who was a close friend of her in-laws. While making his rounds at the hospital, he called his wife and said he felt sick and then suffered a heart attack and died. He was 60 years old — an age that most baby boomers don’t want to associate with death because, in a culture that popularizes longevity, life isn’t supposed to be that short. Isn’t 60 the new 40?

From time to time, we all hear stories like Alphonse’s. They become cautionary tales that make us stop and think about our bad habits, our poor diet, our stress level, our life insurance policy and just about everything ... except the state of our souls. To the ancients, however, this would be a memento mori, a reminder that you have to die. In our culture, death is something we struggle to forget.

When we stare into a coffin, it’s so easy to utter banal resolutions: “I’m going to start working out. I’ll watch my cholesterol. I have to control the stress. No more hot fudge sundaes and potato chips.”

Instead, we should give serious consideration to what we have to show for our life — not in terms of wealth, power and prestige, but in acts of love and kindness for Christ’s sake, since these are the only achievements we’ll take into the next life. In the end, it won’t matter whether our obituary makes The New York Times or we’re named Businessperson of the Year by the Chamber of Commerce. What will matter is how well we tried to do God’s will.

When I enter the Great Hereafter and have my life review, I’ll probably be shocked to see all the times I wasted on self-promotion, self-advancement and just plain old self-centeredness. Many of us will be disappointed to realize that what we did with our lives was woefully inadequate for the opportunities we’d been given.

The story of Alphonse reminded me of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, in which Brother Juniper witnesses five people fall to their death from an Inca rope bridge and struggles to understand why this tragedy occurred in the light of God’s providence.

People probably asked the same questions about Alphonse’s death. Why then? Why there? Why, God? We have many conceptions of death, such as the good die young and the bad live too long, and we often struggle to make sense of it all. But God’s ways are inscrutable, and he calls us home in his own time, whether we think we’re ready or not, regardless of our age or our achievements. I like to believe he takes us at the best possible time, since he sees the whole picture.

Throughout history, saints have kept reminders of their mortality nearby, even human skulls and coffins, to remember that death can come at any time. I keep my own memento mori in my desk drawer. It’s a collection of prayer cards from funerals I’ve attended, which I take out from time to time so I can pray for the souls of my deceased family members and friends and never forget that I, too, shall walk the same path.

I said a prayer for Alphonse, a man I never knew, and took his death as a reminder of what Thomas à Kempis said 600 years ago, when life expectancy was a lot shorter and they thought about their mortality a lot more than they thought about longevity:

“If you are unprepared to face death today, how will you be tomorrow? Tomorrow is uncertain and you may not be here to see it. What good is a long life if we do not use it to advance spiritually? ... Many have died suddenly and without warning; for the Son of Man will come at an hour when you least expect Him. When the hour of death comes, you will begin to think differently about your past life and great will be your sorrow then if you have been negligent and lazy in God’s service.”

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

When we gather around the water cooler to gossip, I’m always ready to cast the first stone.

The other day, I must have been trying to break my personal record because, in no particular order, I complained about a co-worker who was always missing deadlines (my blood pressure rises just thinking about it), an associate who is constantly promoting himself at the expense of others (they seem to populate the workplace) and an incalculable number of irritating politicians and self-obsessed celebrities that I read about in the gossip column of the New York Post (I thought I was justified).

But that night, when I did my daily examination of conscience and tried to look at myself honestly, instead of feeling self-righteous, I hung my head in shame.

For years, I’ve considered myself eminently qualified to judge my co-workers, my friends, my wife, my kids, my pets, people in the news, the White House and Hollywood — it’s a long list. Then, I’m humbled when I remember Pope Francis’ words, “Who am I to judge?” Not to mention my mother’s advice, quoting Thumper in the movie Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing at all.

It’s not that I consider myself better than, say, the Kardashians — I’m certainly not as rich or good-looking — but their decadent lifestyles seem to invite criticism. Regardless of the judgment I think they deserve, Jesus thinks differently, I’m sure. I’m judging, I’m criticizing, I’m condemning. And he’s supposed to do the judging, not us. Or as he said, we should focus less on the speck in our neighbor’s eye and more on the piece of timber in our own.

I always cringe when I hear the Gospel that says: “Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven ... ’”

I’ve heard it a thousand times, but forget its importance when I return to daily life and think, “What fun is there if a guy, or gal, can’t gossip and criticize other people?” They didn’t have water coolers in Jesus’ time, so the temptation to backbite may not have been as great.

My father once shared some practical wisdom with me that he acquired after 25 years in Alcoholics Anonymous. Whenever you’re tempted to take someone else’s inventory, you should immediately stop and pray for the person — and take your own inventory instead. That seemed like a lot to ask, especially since some people don’t deserve prayer as much as a kick in the pants.

He also told me to ask Jesus for the grace to see myself as he sees me, warts and all, which can be a truly sobering experience. The crazy thing is that sometimes we condemn people for the same flaws we have and don’t even realize it. As they say in AA, “You can’t see the picture if you’re in the frame.”

That night, my prayer was for the Holy Spirit to let me know when I’m judging someone and send me the grace to stop. I also asked to see the people I’m judging as Jesus sees them so I can focus on the good and not the bad.

Every day, we meet repugnant people we’d love to avoid by walking across the street or leaving the room. They can be self-centered, nasty, greedy and dishonest, and yet Jesus puts them in our path for a reason. Perhaps to pray for them.

In addition, we never know what the other person might be going through, what hurt and humiliation he may be carrying around inside, what illness she may be suffering or what loss and emotional pain he or she lives with.

The only way to let Christ’s love flow into the world is to ask Christ to let us see others as he sees them, especially those who are difficult to love. Stop and say a prayer. He’ll answer it and fill you with his love for even the most annoying people. It’s something I’m working on. I’ve also decided to take another step in the right direction and bring bottled water to work so I can stay away from the water cooler.

A father and his young son got on the train headed for Manhattan, but all was not going well at 6:47 in the morning. They were quarreling from the moment they sat down.

Father: I asked you four times not to do that, but you ignored me, and I’m getting angry.

Son: (Defiant silence.)

Father: If I ever did that to my father, he would have whacked me.

Son: (Very defiant silence.)

Father: I’m going to ask you one more time ...

catholic life pisani dadchildren july aug17How often have you heard that exchange? I started to cringe and considered moving to another seat. Public parenting disputes always make me uncomfortable, especially when they’re happening in the next seat. They remind me of that feeling of helplessness you get when your son or daughter is ignoring you or making you look like an embarrassment. 

I never figured out what the son did or didn’t do, but I tried to help by silently begging the Holy Spirit to intervene so they could sort out the situation, because sometimes — oftentimes — family crises can’t be solved without heavenly assistance. Then I put in my earplugs and listened to some very loud Mozart.

Parenting is the only vocation where you can try your absolute hardest and come away feeling like an absolute failure — and not know what you did wrong. I guess it comes with the territory. Once upon a time, my mother uttered that familiar curse heard by kids all over the world: “I hope you have kids just like you!” Guess what? Her wish was granted. 

My four daughters, who used to think they had all the answers about parenting, now have to confront their own inadequacies dealing with my grandchildren. They once insisted that all you had to do was “reason” with an unruly child and he’d see the truth and come around. Maybe if his name is Plato.

Raising kids isn’t that easy. Like most parents, I occasionally lie awake, critiquing my performance. Was I too easy? Was I too hard? Did I give them too much? Did I give them too little? Did I praise them too much? Did I praise them too little?

After weighing all the factors, I reach the same conclusion: I wasn’t the best, but I was better than the rest. I can sympathize with every father who ever was blamed for doing a less than perfect job, because parenting can be a thankless endeavor, and sometimes you do the best you can with the tools you have.

I still remember the day my oldest daughter complained that her friend’s father was a doofus, and I tried to use the occasion to get some well-deserved praise for the good job I did, so, in all fearlessness, I asked, “What kind of father was I?”

Without hesitation, she grumbled, “All right, I guess.” So much for inflating my ego. If I asked her for a letter grade, it would have probably been C- or D+.  

There are plenty of success stories, though.

Whether you have one kid or nine, there’s a simple formula for success, and everything will all work out if you follow it, despite the turmoil and problems. Good parenting requires love, patience and prayer, more patience, even more prayer and even more love. I should also mention the importance of forgiveness and trusting completely in God, because everything will work out for the best if you turn your children’s care over to him.

Pray for your children, pray with your children, pray for yourself and pray that any mistakes you make are rectified by God’s love, because God can make the impossible possible ... even for parents.

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

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.

pisani gratitude 3 web

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.