By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli
On a Friday in May, a very distraught man in his mid-40s barricaded himself in a Catholic Church in Center Moriches. He threatened police to use incendiary devices. After the police retreated, he set the church on fire and killed himself.
The first responders and Suffolk County police were extraordinary; hundreds of people reached out to the young pastor to offer help in the midst of this horrific tragedy.
Located directly next to the church was a regional Catholic school, grades K through eight. A few hundred children were locked in for most of the afternoon. They were petrified. By late afternoon, they were released to their parents.
On the Monday after this horrific tragedy, the pastor designated the 8 o’clock morning Mass as a Mass for healing and peace for the parish and school community. The entire student body assembled in the gym along with countless parishioners and community members. This gymnasium turned worship space was alive with faith and renewed hope.
The pastor began the Mass with inspiring words of welcome. After the Gospel reading, he gave an extraordinary homily that was beyond words. The students were mesmerized by his words of compassion, unconditional love, profound gratitude and renewed hope.
He asked the students that morning how many had been afraid on Friday. More than half of the student body raised their hands. The young priest did too. He said he had been really scared but had drawn on his faith and he knew he would be okay. He went on to say to this very attentive audience that it was okay to be scared but that they would be okay too; that we just need to draw on our faith! All who participated that morning left with a renewed sense of hope and a real belief that everything would be okay!
There was a young social work intern at this peace and healing service. He was a social work intern from one of New York City’s graduate schools of social work. I have known him since he was a teenager; he is an extraordinary young man but like many of his generation not without some real-life challenges.
His graduate school graduation was on the Sunday before that Monday morning Mass. I asked him how was graduation. He told me he had been really excited to get hooded since he had missed his undergraduate graduation. However, because of the tragedy in his field placement, he made the difficult decision to pass on commencement. He said, “my students need me; I think it’s more important for me to be present among them. I want them to know that they will be okay!” I was profoundly touched by the decision he made.
That same graduation weekend two young men who have battled addiction since high school are powerful examples that transformation does take place and recovery can and does lead to new life.
One young man graduated cum laude from a local liberal arts college and will begin his professional career as a quality control scientist for a pharmaceutical company. The other young man, a philosophy major as an undergraduate, graduated at the top of his class with a law degree. Both men continue to give back and express gratitude every day for the lives they have reclaimed.
The drug epidemic is a national health crisis. Those in government pay lip service to this infectious affliction; despite their inaction, people do recover, reclaim their lives and become life-giving members of our society.
These are just a few stories of hope. I am fortunate to see these kinds of miracles every day across a landscape of unnecessary human carnage!
Fr. Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.