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Plain Talk

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The world is so polarized. Our nation is so divided; hatred is so infectious these days. So, when one comes upon compassion and kindness, it causes you to stop and think!

Being an avid downhill skier, I never fall and I am always careful but last ski season on my last run I took a terrible fall and slid down half the mountain with both skis on. I finally stopped was able to get up and maneuver down. When I got to the back of the mountain my right knee hurt but I didn’t  pay any attention to it.

The week before Thanksgiving as I was walking down the staircase of the cottage I live in at Little Portion Friary in Mount Sinai, my right leg gave out and I took a tumble. I was told that my meniscus was shot probably because of the fall last season and I now tore a tendon in my right knee. I had emergency surgery and was placed in a brace.

Since that surgery, I’ve been wearing a brace on my right knee. I’ve taken 75 people to Israel and teach at two universities every week. I’m not always dressed as a priest when I go into New York City to teach. Most recently, I was so taken with people’s kindness. Someone offered me a seat on the crowded subway, another held the door and wanted to assist me. Pretty amazing since when I don’t dress like a priest, I look like a homeless man!

Over the last year many of you have reached out to me about a homeless young man who is usually found begging on Route 347. He’s a heroin addict; for more than a year he has been living on the streets and in the woods. A number of times I’ve reached out to him to offer food, clothing, shelter and treatment; each time he politely told me he was not ready. 

Unbeknown to me, a recovering heroin addict who is in my employ has been helping him every day for more than a year by bringing him food and water. He found out where he was living and also brought him a sleeping bag and blankets when it was cold. Every day he checked on this young man for a year, always encouraging him to get treatment.

Finally, after a year of compassion on the part of my employee the young man finally agreed to go to St. Charles detox and entered long-term treatment after that. Two months ago, he entered Hope Academy and has committed himself to 18 months of long-term treatment. Compassion and kindness made all the difference!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

This month’s column was written outside the walls of the old city in Jerusalem, Israel. I was leading a pilgrimage with 74 Americans mostly from Suffolk County, a few from New Jersey, a few from Maryland and a few from Tennessee. We were clearly a very diverse and unique community of people.

Since arriving in Israel, the weather had been sunny and in the 50s which is unusual for early January. A pilgrimage is not a vacation but rather an opportunity for inner reflection, discernment and of course fun human interaction.

Our days consisted of rising early in the morning, having a hearty Israeli breakfast and visiting sites that were more than 2000 years old. Our Jewish guide was brilliant; he knew more about Catholicism and Christianity than most Christians.

Every day we would celebrate the Eucharist in a holy place: Bethlehem, Gethsemane, Peter’s house, Bethany and the Holy Sepulchre to name a few. After a full day of exploring, learning and celebrating, we returned home to a wonderful dinner. After dinner, for those who were interested, we would gather for “Caring, Sharing and Singing.”

Each night more than three quarters of the community would gather for the post dinner sharing. The focus of the sharing would be something that touched them about the day. Some talked about powerful experiences, others spoke about healings that occurred from experiences that were buried long ago, still others talked about the transformation and the peace that took place in the various places that we visited. 

All of this sharing in the midst of songs that range from the 60s to the present moment caused us to laugh and most importantly remember.

Our theme for this year’s pilgrimage was “Hope and Transformation.” Our group consisted of a Jewish man married to a Catholic woman, a number of nondenominational Christians, a number of nonpracticing Catholics and some very serious-minded Catholics.

What developed among us was a profound community of faith. Many rediscovered Jesus in their lives. We came as 74 strangers and left as a community of friends on the same journey struggling with the same issues seeking to do our best with what God has blessed us with.

Since 2008, I’ve been privileged to lead pilgrimages to Israel. There has never been a group that I did not leave feeling more enriched, more willing to stay the course especially in the difficult work that I do and have done for more than 40 years.

This was my first pilgrimage since the pandemic. There was an energy with this group that was very different from my past pilgrimages. We were fairly large, very diverse in age, career and religious practice. However, what I was blessed to see was a strong bond that formed and transcended all of our differences-that focused on faith and hope in making the world a better place.

Although I came home exhausted, I came home with a renewed spirit, a renewed sense of hope despite the landscape of divisiveness and the renewed belief that we can make a profound difference one person at a time. Shalom.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

Photo by Heidi Sutton/TBR News Media

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The holiday season is quickly coming to a close. The Village of Port Jefferson and our larger community are especially beautiful with lights, wreaths and a wide range of holiday decorations. I also feel there is a different energy in the air. There seems to be a more positive spirit this year than in the years past. I actually saw people who didn’t know each other greeting one another and holding the door as they walked into a store. It was really amazing.

There is a part of me that wants to bottle that positive energy and release it when things start to inch back towards the darkness. However, I realize each one of us has the power to keep that positive energy going one person at a time utilizing random acts of kindness and just mutual words of encouragement and welcome.

The world is profoundly paralyzed. Our government and other governments around the world have become disturbingly ineffective and disconnected from the real pulse of the people. No matter what one’s race, religion, creed, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status, most people just want to get along; to live with mutual respect with one another.

At the end of the last semester at St. Joseph’s University where I have taught for more decades than I want to admit, I asked one of my freshmen that exact question. He paused for a moment and said, “we have to stop judging people by externals, stop judging a book by its cover. We must be more willing to pull the onion skin down to the core.”

His response was amazing. It sounds so simple but in reality, we make it so complicated. If we could only judge less and love more, how much better the world would be. Hopefully, the next generation will have the courage to do exactly that and not get sucked up into all the garbage and nonsense.

For more than a decade now, I’ve had the privilege of teaching graduate student social workers at Fordham’s graduate school of Social Service. I teach clinical practice and a human rights and social justice course. Most of my students are second year, chomping at the bit to graduate. Every week they inspire me to stay my course and strengthen my love for clinical social work and advocacy. Their passion for wanting to make a difference is inspirational. I pray that their positive energy and enthusiasm is not impaired by the crazy world that we live in.

 We need them because they really believe that change is possible. They really want to make a difference in the world and make it a better place. I hope their energy and enthusiasm becomes contagious. It genuinely has energized me to stay the course and to continue “to be the change you wish to see in the world.” — Mohandas Gandhi

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

The holiday season is in full bloom. Our beautiful villages with Christmas lights and wreaths reminds us what this time of year is supposed to be about. We celebrate the holiday season across a landscape that is polarized and profoundly divisive. 

Our recent midterm elections have made the powerful statement that Americans are tired of hearing about election steal lies. They are tired of conspiracy theories and rhetoric that is blatantly false and disgraceful.

The midterm elections have made a powerful statement that democracy is more powerful than autocracy; that we as a nation want to move forward and find new ways to collaborate with each other for the sake of all Americans.

As you prepare to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, I hope our faith leaders have the courage to stand up and speak for truth, for social justice and respect for all people no matter what their race, religion, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic class.

Our silence, when it comes to serious life issues that impact all of us, is a statement of complicity. Shame on those of us who hold positions of religious leadership and remain silent. Shame on those who hold positions of religious leadership and fuel the hate and polarization that is paralyzing our nation.

However, despite this chaotic landscape I continue to remain exceptionally hopeful because I am blessed to see miracles and human transformation every day. 

Every morning when I get up, I look out at our garden of remembrance. There are more than 120 crosses representing all the innocent lives that have been lost to overdose and addiction since the pandemic. They are from our community. They have mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters that live among us. I know these days are hard for their families. We must never forget but always remember their gift of life.

Human kindness continues to live on in our midst. Hopefully during this holiday season, it will become contagious. Recently a retired schoolteacher told me a powerful story. She was on line at Taco Bell in her car and her eyes met the eyes of a man in a red truck in front of her. It was just a momentary glance. When she got to the window to pay, the cashier told her there was no charge. The man in the red truck had covered her meal. Needless to say, she was overwhelmed. 

The cashier gave her a note which I have permission to share with you: “To the person behind me in line, please accept this small act of kindness today as a reminder that all of us have bad days, but not all of us were fortunate enough to wake up this morning and have a day at all. No matter how hard it gets, keep going! You are stronger than your most difficult hour, and there are so many people supporting you even if you haven’t met them yet. Peace, love, tacos — a random stranger.”

As we celebrate the holiday season this year, let us reach out with random kindness to the strangers in our midst that could become our friends!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

Have you ever stopped in the middle of Penn Station amongst the noise and human activity and just think?

Recently, I did exactly that. It was rush hour. I had just finished teaching at Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Graduate School of Social Services. I took the one train to Penn Station. There was pandemonium like I have not seen since pre-pandemic days.

This was a different kind of energy. It was opening night for the New York Rangers. People’s excitement was contagious. I almost wished that I had a ticket so that I could go to the hockey game even though I hate hockey. 

In the midst of all of the noise and excitement, I stopped, took a breath and looked around. My eyes caught sight of a little girl with a Rangers jersey on that was bigger than her; she was on fire. I waved and caught her eye; she waved back with a big smile. As I was waiting for my train back to Ronkonkoma. I couldn’t help but think of her innocence, of her positive energy, of her genuine openness and that one day that beautiful little smile and abundant energy could be severely impaired because of the world we live in.

Soon enough she will move from the innocence of childhood into the chaos of adolescence and young adulthood. The world is a very negative place right now for the next generation to be nurtured in. We need to protect them from the garbage and hypocrisy that is everywhere. We need to attempt to change all of that negativity and make the world a place that is welcoming and inclusive, even if we disagree!

We need to work harder at building bigger bridges rather than stronger walls. We need to create a language grounded in respect and love for everyone, even when it’s hard, challenging and demanding.

No little girl should ever have her innocence and joy threatened or impaired because the world is filled with narcissism and selfishness.

Every day I see pain and suffering in the eyes of the mentally ill and the drug addicts that I live and work with; but I also see hope and potential for change and transformation. I see miracles every day which make me believe we can make the world better; make it more loving and caring for all the little ones who live in our midst.

Mental health is a major concern that is rapidly disarming and paralyzing a growing number of young people of every age and walk of life. We don’t have enough licensed mental health professionals that can cost-effectively meet the epidemic need before us. We must collaborate now to erase the stigma that painfully exists around mental health treatment. We must demand accountability from all our insurance providers who tend to play games with our mental health and access to comprehensive mental health treatment.

The government needs to stop talking the talk and begin walking the walk. Our faith leaders need to have the guts to stand up, be counted and lead us in the fight for protecting all life that is scarred by mental health disorders. This cannot wait for tomorrow.

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank PizzarelliPlain Talk:

On Sept. 25 a few hundred people gathered to dedicate and bless Our Lady of Hope Grotto and the Garden of Hope located in Mount Sinai on the grounds of Little Portion Friary, a former Anglican Franciscan Monastery.

Historically, it was the site of the first Hope House founded in 1980. For more than four decades, Hope House Ministries has reached out to the most vulnerable among us. Presently, the heart of this social outreach is providing residential and outpatient services for those among us who are battling addiction.

This nontraditional residential treatment program for addictions is located on the grounds of the former monastery. Since beginning there five years ago, more than 600 men have reclaimed and transformed their lives.

The heroin and fentanyl epidemic is crippling our nation and our larger community. The Grotto and Garden of Hope have become a safe place for people to gather who have members in their family are struggling with addiction and for those growing number of families who have lost loved ones to this god-awful affliction.

The Garden of Remembrance has more than 120 crosses honoring those who have died in our larger community. Unfortunately, requests for crosses continue to come in every week.

The heroin and fentanyl epidemic continues to spiral out of control for number of reasons. We still attach a terrible stigma to people who battle addiction. Addicts and their families continue to struggle with shame and guilt which too often paralyzes those who need help from getting help.

Support services for addiction treatment is grossly inadequate. We need more detox beds, more residential treatment beds that provide more than 11 days of care, or outpatient treatment and more trained, licensed treatment professionals to provide counseling and support.

If you are uninsured or poorly insured, you don’t have a chance at quality treatment. The insurance industry seems to hold all the power and they know little or nothing about addiction and treatment for the chronic relapser and hard-core heroin addict.

Until we take the power out of the insurance companies’ hands and put it in the hands of treatment professionals, we’re going to continue to bury people that need not die. We need to draw on the evidence-based research for treatment if you want people to recover. Our insurance dollars need to be well spent. Look at the recidivism rate across the country. It is out of control and scandalous. We clearly need to do things differently.

As I write this column, a young man that I’ve worked with for more than 20 years since he was a teenager has overdosed. He is someone’s son, someone’s brother, someone’s cousin, someone’s father. He was doing extremely well over an extended period of time. He developed a successful business, owns his own home and is an active member in the recovery community. It took only a moment and a poor choice; now he is on life support fighting for his life.

Hope lives on and love remains!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

What is happening to our nation? The violent rhetoric is at an all time high. It is out of control. The threats of violence against elected officials and public servants is reprehensible.

Many are disgusted with our elected officials. Why would any person of character and integrity want to put his or her family at risk due to this infectious rhetoric that is spreading like wildfire across the country?

Where are our elected leaders when we need them? Elected officials are making ridiculous statements without doing their homework and getting the facts. They are more dangerous than the extremists who are igniting this violence across the country.

Where are our religious leaders? Most  of our major faith traditions have been silent about the new threats of violence across the country, the gun safety issues and the growing number of heroin overdoses that are paralyzing parts of our nation.

Our elected leaders are failing to encourage respectful but comprehensive conversations about the sensitive issues facing all Americans. Instead some are publicly fueling this hateful rhetoric that is inciting violence and putting peoples lives at risk.

What has happened to our moral compass? Compassion, common sense and respect seem to be dead in America. Religion should never be used as a weapon – that is deplorable. Religious leaders who use their puppets to weaponize congregants are disgraceful.

We are a nation of diversity. That is one of the many excellent qualities we have that makes our nation great.

My hope is that our local and national religious leaders will have the courage to lead us, to build better bridges and not stronger walls, to be more inclusive not exclusive. Our religious leaders must lead us by way of example to transcend the hateful rhetoric that is infecting all of us and not contribute to it.

We must reclaim the narrative that incites violence and hatred and re-create the climate of respect and tolerance of all of our differences.

Where has objective truth gone? Why can’t we have intense conversations about important issues and genuinely leave a conversation agreeing to disagree, do it with respect and no hostility.

Disagreements should never lead to threats of violence or violence itself.

We have a very powerful opportunity for political and religious leaders to come together transcend all the hateful rhetoric and violence and have the courage to remind all Americans of the need for renewed respect for all people, even when we differ. 

The younger generation needs to see us come together. So many of them are still recovering from the two years of social isolation due to the pandemic. They need to concretely see each of us engage in difficult conversations that help us to come together and better understand each other.

Hope does not abandon us, we abandon hope. I hope not!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

It is unfortunate that we tend to label and stigmatize people because of unfortunate circumstances in their lives. If someone has gone to jail and served their time, they are labeled by many as useless lowlifes. 

They try to get a job and live a normal productive life but the ex-con is marked and not oftentimes given the chance to redeem themselves. So, the ex-con who has been rehabilitated is going to fail because there are no resources to empower them to succeed and move beyond the destructive label we have created for them.

Illegal drug use is out of control within our country. Overdose deaths are at an epic high. Treatment resources are overburdened and unfortunately too often ineffective, if we look at the terrible relapse rates. The numbers are staggering!

There is most likely not a person reading this column who has not directly or indirectly been affected by out-of-control drug use. We are in the midst of a national health epidemic around the abuse of heroin and fentanyl. People of every age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and economic status are dying senselessly every day because of overdosing. Too many people stigmatize those battling addiction. We support people who are battling cancer, why don’t we support those afflicted with addiction?

Believe it or not there are a growing number of people with tremendous support who reclaim their lives and become productive members of our larger community. That road to wellness and freedom is not easy!

JB was born into a wonderful upper-middle-class family. He went to Catholic high school. He went on to college but failed out because of his drug use. His parents spent tens of thousands of dollars on various treatment programs that did nothing. He lived on the streets of Florida, underneath bridges and in shelters.

Finally, JB saw the light and went into a long-term residential treatment program for addictions. He went back to college, graduated at the top of his class and earned a scholarship to law school. A month ago, he graduated from law school as number one in his class. He was the valedictorian and gave his speech to a packed arena. His address was about his journey to recovery and wellness which led him to law school. Today he works for a big law firm in New York City, but also does pro bono work for those who are battling addiction and need law services.

The salutatorian at Five Towns College told his story of hope and transformation as a gay man in recovery. JM hopes to leave for Spain in September to teach children English in Madrid.

People do recover from addiction and do great things. These two men in the midst of all the darkness around us are clearly beacons of light and of hope among us!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Father Frank Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

June is the time of year when school ends and summer begins. It’s a time of year when our high school seniors graduate and prepare to transition into young adults. Some will go away to college; others will prepare to enter the workforce. All of our graduates will hopefully deal with all of the challenges of change and transition in a positive way.

The hard question to answer is are these graduates ready and prepared for the new challenges before them? The pandemic has definitely impaired many of these extraordinary young men and women.

However, despite the challenges and the lack of holistic services in the area of mental health and addiction services, many of these graduates have begun to navigate the difficult road before them with extraordinary character and integrity.

Despite the polarizing landscape they must navigate, the class of 2022 are genuinely beacons of hope. So many of them have courageously challenged the hypocrisy of our present age. They have reached out to the most vulnerable and marginalized among us.

A growing number of high school students who have graduated and have been victimized by the mass school shootings that have ripped at the soul of America have become prophetic voices in our midst. They have worked tirelessly to raise people’s awareness that sensible gun laws don’t infringe on our Second Amendment rights, but rather remind us that all life is sacred and we need to protect all!

Graduates of 2022, thank you for reminding all of us that hope lives in our midst and that your class is going to make a profound difference in our world! Thank you for reminding us that all people matter, no matter what their race, religion, sexual orientation, or economic status.

Class of 2022, may you always have the courage despite our social climate of divisiveness to build bridges instead of walls, to create a world where love, forgiveness and inclusiveness are foundational.

One of your classmates this graduation season did not walk with his fellow seniors because he was killed due to gun violence. His high school career was marked by compassion and service to others. He constantly talked to his mom about wanting to go into public service after college and trying to make a difference in the world. He won’t have that opportunity but many of you could choose that career path. We desperately need you; our democracy is moving towards autocracy; we need your help to reclaim the soul of our nation and protect our freedoms.

May you always remember hope does not abandon us, we abandon hope! Class of 2022 —  always be men and women of hope!

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.

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By Fr. Francis Pizzarelli

Father Frank Pizzarelli

When is enough, enough? How many more innocent children have to be martyred before we take the blinders off and heed the call to action?!

Twenty-one additional families have to live with the profound sense of loss of life of those they have loved. Nineteen innocent school-age children and two teachers were massacred by a depraved 18-year-old, who was legally allowed to purchase two automatic rifles that are used for war, not hunting or innocent self-defense. How can the people that we have elected to lead us remain silent? By their silence, they demonstrate complicity!

Does a senator or congressperson have to have his or her son or daughter murdered before they have the guts to stand up for justice and speak out for common sense gun safety? This is not about denying any American citizen his or her second amendment rights — it is about ensuring the safety of all American citizens, no matter what their age.

When will those who lead us have the guts to lead and not be bought off by the gun lobby, the insurance lobby or any other special interest groups that do not care about the life and safety of ordinary Americans?

Many in power are not doing their jobs on both sides of the aisle. They need to be voted out of office this election cycle. The silent majority needs to stand up, be counted and act on behalf of the innocent.

Schools were always a safe place for children to grow, learn and have fun. Another student body of more than 600 students has been traumatized. How long will it take for them to move beyond their fears? Some will carry this trauma for the rest of their lives; it will impact their journey forever. Other students will have a chance to recover, but it will be a hard road especially since this poor Texan community does not have the trained mental health professionals to assist these students and their families. 

Will government step in? Who knows? It seems rather clear by all the school shootings in the past 10 years that the government and our leadership does not care! 

Every religious leader who reads this column, I pray you have the courage to challenge your congregation to give voice to this very important human life issue. Every child in America deserves to feel safe and be safe in every environment. We need to demand universal background checks and common-sense gun safety laws that will protect all Americans everywhere.

We also need to develop national protocols when a high school student is identified as a threat to the safety of his or her classmates. Mental illness in this country is out of control and untreated. Suspension and/or expulsion does not ensure safety.  Remember the Parkland massacre!

Our children are our greatest gift. May they never experience the trauma of Sandy Hook or Robb Elementary School. May we have the courage to move beyond our deafness. Our children are counting on us! 

Father Francis Pizzarelli, SMM, LCSW-R, ACSW, DCSW, is the director of Hope House Ministries in Port Jefferson.