Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Sunday, June 24, 2018

father-pesceWEST HARTFORD – Even before his 1951 ordination as a Passionist priest in Union City, N.J., Father John Baptist Pesce was passionate about social justice. At 87, he shows no sign of slowing down.

"I don’t think it’s extraordinary that a priest should do what I did," he said, referring to nearly 60 years of ministry to the underprivileged. "It just seems to me that it goes right along with being a priest."

To recognize Father Pesce’s lifetime commitment to social justice, the archdiocesan Office for Catholic Social Justice Ministry (OCSJM) on Oct. 26 presented him with the Most Reverend Joseph F. Donnelly Memorial Award. The award is named after Bishop Donnelly, who committed his life to advocating for the poor and for American workers.

Father Pesce has been a resident of Holy Family Passionist Monastery and Retreat House in West Hartford since 1970. He has advocated for the abolition of the death penalty for decades and offers spiritual support to women prisoners at the York Correctional Facility in Niantic. Five years ago, he traveled to El Salvador and Haiti to work at a dental clinic.

In 2003, he introduced the annual Children’s Peace Festival at Holy Family, but he gives credit for it to others. "I picked this up from a woman in Florida. Other people do the dirty work; they get their hands dirty. This past June, we had about 50 kids, and the storyteller had the children on tiptoe expectation," he said.

From 1 to 4 p.m., the children were also entertained by a magician, a dancer and by playing noncompetitive games. "Competition is what leads to war," he explained.

"I’m not trying to diminish the award that was given to me, but to me it all fits together, the peace festival and working for social justice or against poverty," he said. "I mean, what are we here for as a Church? And I will say, as I said at the award ceremony, to me it’s the laypeople who have really been the inspiration, I mean the way they plunge themselves into it."

Asked why he was nominated for the Donnelly Award, he said, "I think you should ask the people who gave me the award. I’ve just been doing my duty as I think a priest should do."

Cori Thibodeau, executive director of OCSJM, said, "He was nominated for his lifelong commitment in his priesthood for giving witness to social justice, through his preaching and personal witness. He is somebody who is not afraid to speak out about the issues of the day, whether it be abortion or war."

Father Pesce said he’s been an advocate for social justice all his life. "I’m a Depression baby, [born in] 1923, so I saw adult men selling apples, selling pencils, playing the violin to earn a living, see. I’m a young boy, and I see there’s something screwy here. And I saw the devastation it did on families, especially in those days when the man was the breadwinner of the family."

He said that people who complain that jobless people shouldn’t receive unemployment compensation "don’t know what they’re talking about. Anyone who’s sane wants to work."

He said it’s important to not make people dependent but to give them the opportunity to become independent.

But, he doesn’t believe that people who oppose his views are malicious. "It’s a matter of ignorance. That’s why we have to inform people," he said.

During his seminary days, he said, he had teachers who reinforced his passion for helping the poor. "They were positive in presenting this and saying, ‘This is how the Church should be,’" he said.

"The big problem now is the disparity between rich nations and poor nations and within the nations themselves," he said. "If this disparity continues, we’re never going to have a safe and secure society."

He said that President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela have called poverty a scandal. "Why is it a scandal? Because there’s no reason for it," he said. "It’s not the lack of resources; it’s the lack of political will."

He said he is not an optimist but he is hopeful. "I can paint a pretty glum picture of the world, but I’m a person of hope because I see people who want to get engaged. If you show them, if you give them a little direction and impetus, they’re ready to take the step."