It was one of those mornings. I planned to be at Planet Fitness by 7 a.m. and wound up pulling into the parking lot at 11. But as soon as I got out of the car, I knew why. It was because I was supposed to run into Father Joe Adonizio.
I often see minor, everyday frustrations in such light. My plans are thwarted because God has better ones.
Father Joe had just stepped out of the Dollar Tree store and proceeded to plant a kiss on my cheek, as is his wont. We share a lot of history, Father Joe and I. Most of it centers around the little borough of Hughestown.
Father Joe’s eyes filled with tears as he said, as he always says these days, that all of his contemporaries are gone. That includes my mother’s family, the Strubecks, like Father Joe’s, Hughestown natives. My Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Eddie, my mom’s sister and brother who remained single all their lives and lived in the family homestead on Drake Street, were the last to go. Prior to their deaths just a few years ago, their front porch was a favorite stop of Father Joe, a place to pass some time reminiscing about the good ole days over a tall glass of ice tea on a warm summer afternoon.
Father Joe, 92 years old and still busy nearly every day with priestly duties, has known me for more than 65 years. My family — mom, dad, two older sisters — lived on Kenley Street in Hughestown when I was born. Our house was next door to a little, neighborhood grocery store operated by the Adonizios. When I was a tyke, maybe 3, young Joe Adonizio, a college student four or five years away from being ordained into the priesthood, could often be found working in the store. Neighborhoods were safe then, and it was nothing for my mom to send me to the store with a note and a few dollars rolled up in my little hand. I was somewhat of a regular, from what I’ve been told.
Father Joe vividly recalls looking forward to my visits. He also recalls teaching me to tell people my name was “Joe Murphy.” If there were other customers in the store, he’d encourage one of them to “Ask that little kid his name,” and when the person did, I’d respond, “Joe Murphy.”
I, of course, do not remember this, but just the thought of it delights me.
Three years ago I interview Father Joe on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of his ordination.
“Vocations begin at home,” he said. And then he told a little story.
“Beggars were a common occurrence when we were young,” he began. “They would knock on your door and ask for a handout. Most people would give them a sandwich or at least a piece of bread, but our mother would invite them in. Even though she had seven children to feed, she would set a place at the table for this perfect stranger. Later, when we knelt around her to say our nighttime prayers, she would tell us, ‘Christ came to our home today. That was Jesus at our table.’”
One would never dream of inviting a stranger into one’s home today, and I find that sad. But Father Joe’s story comes to mind every time I have the opportunity to reach out to the poor.
Father Joe is never not a priest. And standing there in that parking lot on a cold, windy winter’s day, he was a priest for me. Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst,” and that’s how it felt in that faith-filled encounter.
Before we parted, Father Joe brought up the gospel story about Simon and some of the other would-be disciples cowering in their boat during a storm while Jesus slept. When he awakens, he asks them, “Why are you afraid?”
“None of us should ever be afraid of anything,” Father Joe said and further quoted scripture: “So do not fear, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you.”
I don’t know if Father Joe realized it, but this was a message I desperately needed to hear that day.
He then smiled, kissed me on the cheek one more time, and added, “You’ll always be a little boy to me.”
Somehow, I needed to hear that too.
Ed Ackerman write The Optimist every week. Look for his blogs online during the week at pittstonprogress.com.