Above: John Byam Liston Shaw, The Prodigal’s Return (late-19th Century)
Hail, holy queen, mother of mercy!
Our life, our sweetness, and our hope!
To thee do we cry, poor banished
children of Eve, to thee do we send
up our sighs, mourning and weeping
in this valley, of tears.
Turn, then, most [precious] advocate,
thine eyes of mercy toward us; and
after this our exile show unto us the
blessed fruit of thy womb Jesus;
O clement, O loving, O sweet virgin Mary.
Pray for us, O holy Mother of God
That we may be made worthy of the
promises of Christ.
This is the way my father recited the “Hail, Holy Queen.” But one word is changed. He would say “most precious advocate” instead of “most gracious advocate.” I first noticed this when I began to pray the Rosary with my father; a few years before, my dad organized a weekly Rosary procession on his property. At the time I wasn’t a believer – in fact, I was antithetic to the entire idea. I thought the Rosary, and Catholic devotions in general, were a medieval throw-back that only held sway over old women, peasants, and the superstitious.
A few years later, the Lord struck me off my high-horse of loathing and pride and I miraculously joined my father in praying the same Rosary I once abhorred. Immediately, I noticed that he made this adjustment in the language of the “Hail, Holy Queen” and afterwards I corrected him. He looked at me and in a forthright manner said: “She is precious to me.”
I thought, well, he is still wrong, but he’s getting old and that’s…kind of a quaint.
My father was not educated. Growing up in war-torn Sicily, there wasn’t much time for food, let alone going to school. But my dad was one of the most theologically astute persons I ever knew. My dad was instinctual; I noticed this when I watched him make wine – he often described the process of fermentation he observed back home – his knowledge was experienced and lived; almost like a type of oral history passed on from one generation to generation. But my father could also quickly understand and master the fundamentals…of nearly anything. He did the same with Catholicism.
Saint Joseph, Our Lady, and the Cross: those were the essential elements in my father’s Faith.
I was named after that Saint; and so was my father’s older brother. As a kid, I hated it when my dad called me Giuseppe, or worse yet – Pepino. My father meant it as a term of endearment, but it made me feel small. Only, I always felt small next to my father. Stout rather than towering, however my father seemed heroic and superhuman. He had the sort of bearing which appeals to the so-called man’s man. For example, a story often retold about my father, involved him trying to enroll me at St. John the Baptist School even though the academic year already started and the classroom was apparently full to capacity. As I recall several accounts of the incident – my dad respectfully, but forcefully requested that the school make room for me – just add another desk. The Pastor at the time was the equally formidable Monsignor Hynes; another not particularly tall, but nonetheless determined and outspoken man. Where some would find my dad overbearing, I think Monsignor understood him – it took the same sort of man to see both sides of my father: the man who cared about his son enough to be a bit insistent. I was just scared by both of them. Decades later, in many ways, my dad reminds me of the foster-father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, for he too was a man of decisive action and courage. When I was a boy, I thought there was nothing my dad couldn’t do. And for good reason. For I witnessed as he transformed, almost single-handedly, a forgotten piece of land covered in rocks and scrub-brush into a verdant oasis. He moved quickly. And, he got me into school that year.
Like Saint Joseph – my father was a worker. My dad primarily worked with his hands: in the fields when he was a young man in Italy, then as a baker, and finally returning to what I think was his great love – farming. He often stated that the Napa Valley reminded him of home. Yet, I also think my dad liked a challenge and he was persistent. He loved a project. But there was always purpose behind everything my dad accomplished – and that was to provide for his family. I was forever a rather self-absorbed dreamer and I didn’t understand my father – I thought his work took precedence over everything else. And, when I got a little older, I didn’t care for him very much. Therefore, when everyone around my father took such great delight in his company, I was bemused by their attraction. Because, unlike him, I was awkward and unsure. In contrast, my dad had a casual, easy, and occasionally brusque demeanor that sometimes broke nearly every social convention, but was oddly refreshing; he treated everyone equally and talked to a day laborer in the same way he would address the owner of a famous winery. He never lost his humility and he regarded ability and diligence more valuable than status. He accomplished much in his life, but he preferred the company of simple people; like the unassuming carpenter Saint Joseph, a descendent of King David – my dad saw the moral worth in hard work and in those who weren’t afraid to push themselves.
During much of my life I remember my father as boisterous and loud, but there was another side to him that noticeably emerged in his later years; just as Christ called upon Saint Joseph the Worker to provide for the Christ-Child and the Blessed Mother during those crucial formative years – there is also Saint Joseph the Silent; and my father followed that example.
After I finished college, because I stayed at home more, I saw a dramatic change in both my father’s interests and priorities. He wasn’t constantly preoccupied with work. As a child, my father existed in a state of constant motion. Sometimes he didn’t stop to even eat – food was something you consumed while moving (or driving a truck) from one project to another. When he wasn’t working, he worked at acquiring new customers. Before the invention of the power-lunch, he understood the importance of making personal connections, joining professional organizations, attending trade shows, and participating in food and wine tastings. For a while, he rarely had dinner at home. Rather suddenly, everything was different. For example, the crowd he attracted for his weekly Rosary procession represented a modest and simple cross-section of the faithful. He started to pray a lot. I couldn’t figure any of it out. But what God revealed to the insignificant at Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima, remains incomprehensible to the outwardly enlightened. My dad was choosing to turn away from the world, not in hiding, but in embracing something better.
Frequently, I passingly observed my dad quietly sitting alone; praying, I guessed. Even when my father was young and very busy, he maintained these devotional customs that I thought were quaint. In what would become the final quarter of his life, there was nothing quaint about what my father was doing. Like Joseph, although it appeared he retreated to the backwater of a small town in Galilee and my father to an isolated mountain peak, my dad was still working hard, but this was a different less prestigious type of labor and the rewards were not visible even (at first) for the world to see.
In 2006, my father oversaw the design and construction of a little chapel. It would be the last structure he built on his property, after he had already completed a large family home, a guest house, a winery, and a wine cellar. Some would have considered it an afterthought or an odd addition. But my father was very proud. To the occasional non-believer or non-practicing Catholic who infrequently visited my dad, he welcomed everyone, I could see a quizzical look on their faces after being impressed by the vastness and seeming importance of owing your own winery and fully loaded wine cellar…but a family-chapel? I think, they thought, as I once did: isn’t that quaint. But I consider it the ultimate irony that during the fire, every worldly sign of my father’s success burned to the ground; and only the chapel remained. I think of Saint Joseph, whatever he might have built is gone, it served its purpose, and only Christ remains.
One of my father’s strongest lifelong devotions was to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Always hanging in his bedroom, or nearby, was an image of the icon. From my shortened perspective as a little boy, staring up at that picture – it frightened me. Highly prized by Italians, she looks Mediterranean with her olive skin, aquiline nose, and stern expression; I made a special effort to visit the original when I traveled to Rome a few years ago. But when I was a child, I didn’t like her. I didn’t understand her either. The picture actually presents the exact moment when two onrushing angels carrying the instruments of Christ’s Passion, causing the Baby Jesus to leap into His Mother’s arms, and she casts a sad almost disdainful expression to all of humanity who bear the sole responsibility for her Son’s future suffering. I thought she was simply overly critical and judgmental.
My father understood. The sorrowful and joyful mysteries of Our Lady were a reality because he lived them and prayed them. I knew it hurt my father, when I was young and I made all the wrong decisions. One day, outside the earshot range of my mother, my father told me how bothered he was about what I had become. He told me that I was always welcome, but those I chose to associate with – were not. He wasn’t cruel, but he was clear. I considered it all extremely critical and judgmental. But my dad understood both sides of Catholicism. For at the time, I was studying at Berkeley and focusing on Medieval Europe; I adored the historically significant Art, Architecture and Music of the Catholic Church; the rest of it – well, the teachings were stupid, outdated, and, as for the traditional customs and practices – they were sort of…quaint. But my dad knew that the Church indeed encompassed those beautiful works of Man inspired by God, (the little chapel he built serves as a testimony to my dad’s rather refined taste – that’s puzzling coming from a former provincial country boy) but God, and the Church, also required something additional from us beyond just being lovers of beauty or casual tourists through the Vatican appreciating the frescos.
My dad became a living parable as he began to pray, wait, and watch like the father of the “prodigal son.” Again, periodically, I stumbled upon him sitting alone and heard him pray for me – by name. I disregarded it as quaint, somewhat pointless, and even absurd. But those prayers were the only bulwark keeping me from walking straight into hell. In later life, I sometimes disregarded my father as prematurely old, feeble from ill health, and slow-witted because he was deafly hard of hearing, but my father, as his physical prowess diminished, became one of the greatest, most alert and agile warriors on this Earth. For he was fighting an invisible battle, and his Rosary was the weapon of choice. I would have died in unrepentant mortal sin twenty years ago if it hadn’t been for my father’s tireless prayers.
My dad prayed the Rosary every day – all four mysteries (twice); that’s four hundred “Hail Marys.”
And I thought only old ladies, sentimental fools, and the hopelessly weak prayed.
However, my father also knew great joy. He loved to be with those who were most precious to him – his family; specifically, his grandchildren. Ultimate bliss included all of the following: family members attending Mass with him, a large meal, and then everyone praying the Rosary. It happened a few times. But the world distorts our priorities. When I lived with my parents, after the prayers of my father saved me from eternal damnation, my dad often asked me to pray the Rosary with him and my mother; when I did, he was silently overjoyed and I knew it. But most of the time, I said: “I just can’t today, dad.” What I needed to do instead, that was apparently so important, I can’t remember.
And, as with the father of the “prodigal son,” my dad took the greatest joy in the renewed and returned Faith of his children; and his grandchildren. That’s what he truly honored. In my own life, I haven’t accomplished 1% in terms of the entrepreneurial or financial accomplishments that my father attained, but I know he was proud me, not because I achieved anything that amounts to much in the eyes of the world, but because I loved Jesus, His Mother, and Saint Joseph; because I followed the Ten Commandments; went to Mass; regularly Confessed my sins; prayed the Rosary; and tried to be a good man. Ultimately, that’s all that mattered to him.
As a kid, I thought of my dad as incredibly difficult to impress. When I got older, after I tried and failed at just about everything; I didn’t have to prove anything to him; for he truly embodied once again the father in the parable of the “prodigal son” – because he welcomed me with open arms. Even in my nothingness, he saw Giuseppe, and Pepino – he simply saw the little boy he loved.
Saint John Paul wrote: Mercy – as Christ has presented it in the parable of the prodigal son – has the interior form of the love that in the New Testament is called agape. This love is able to reach down to every prodigal son, to every human misery, and above all to every form of moral misery, to sin. When this happens, the person who is the object of mercy does not feel humiliated, but rather found again and “restored to value.”
As with the Rosary, there is sorrow and joy in the Cross.
My father certainly experienced pain and sorrow. As a child, I never knew a day when my dad was not in some sort of physical discomfort or near agony. I can’t recall hearing him complain much; anyway – he was too busy working to ruminate over his health. Especially when I was a teenager, I thought my father rather foolhardy for not taking better care of his health; though at the same instant, I didn’t hesitate to benefit from his hard work. But I wondered if it all amounted to vain glory. My answer now: I don’t think so. Saint Joseph could have been seriously ill on the way to Bethlehem or worse yet – during the strenuous overland voyage to Egypt, but he did it anyway. He had to…
Once his priorities changed and the physical pain my father endured intensified in his old age, I also think he indelibly understood the deep theological truth of redemptive suffering; again, because he lived it. A peculiar childhood memory of mine includes overhearing my father discuss an impromptu conversation he had with an older woman that he met on the beach when he was a young father; for some reason, they talked, and she observed one of my siblings, or perhaps me, stepping on his feet; she said: “When they are little, they step on your feet, when they grow-up, they step on your heart.” I thought, what an awful bitter thing to say. Sadly, I fulfilled her prophecy. But amidst the most unpleasant and distracting types of physical illnesses and torments – my father ceaselessly prayed. Its easy to pray when things are going well; but when it hurts, when we feel abandoned and alone, when we are sick, and, when we are dying – the impulse is to recoil into our own self-centeredness. Since the fire destroyed my house and all my possessions – I haven’t prayed much; almost not all. I’m usually too preoccupied with feeling sorry for myself. Yet, when my father was suffering terribly, from one affliction after another – he never stopped praying; even when I sat next to his bed in the hospital – he prayed. But not for himself.
I think my father was extraordinary, but what he did was actually quite ordinary and every parent, and every father could follow the same path – but it will include suffering; your own suffering offered up in in the name of your son or daughter; or grandchild; or niece or nephew; or just for someone you love.
Love that person with all your heart; tell them the truth – they won’t hear it in the world; the rest is up to them; but you can’t stop there – pray for that person (night and day.) Pray the Rosary. Never give up on them. Someday they might return home covered in pig slop – I did.
In self-sacrifice, the three great loves of my father were indelibly combined: the stalwart determination of Saint Joseph, the power of the Rosary, and his willingness to embrace the Cross – for someone else. I’m glad he prayed for me – I owe him my life, in more ways than one. I struggled to understand my father, and I wasted a lot of time being angry and feeling hurt; I made a lot of bad decisions and when everyone understandably gave-up and considered me a lost cause…My father did not; because my life was always precious to him.
For a while I was trapped alone with my father during the fire. After my mother evacuated on what unbeknownst to all of us, would be the last helicopter flight out, I remained with my dad. In the middle of a large clearing, a few fire fighters, a small group of other residents, and my dad and I waited for the road to open; I thought we were waiting to die. When we had to leave our house, I rolled my dad outside in his wheelchair, and he was unceremoniously placed in the cargo area of an SUV. With a recently broken arm, the experience must have been excruciating. He said little.
When we discovered that the road was blocked, I parked in a nearby clearing, I opened up the hatchback and saw that my father laid crunched on the hard floor of the car. I searched for a firefighter to help; one of them, who evidently had some extensive type of paramedic training – immediately rushed over. We talked and he crawled into the vehicle next to my dad. I asked about my father leaving on the helicopter. He said: First, they needed to secure him to a transport board. In the meantime, the winds had gotten much worse; the helicopter couldn’t return.
The firefighters, were men such as my father – quick, but decisive. They seemed gruff and impatient with my questions and concerns about my dad, but in the midst of the raging fire, they were capable of incredible compassion as evidenced by the young firefighter who cared so gently for my father.
As I stood motionless at the back of the vehicle, I looked northward and watched the fires burn ever closer to our location. Over the sound of the onrushing wind, I heard my father call out: “Giuseppe…Giuseppe.” I asked him – “What’s the matter?” He didn’t respond, but reached out to hold my hand. I believe he was trying to comfort me. I always knew my destiny was forever linked with my father. I resolved to stay here with him.
As the fire got worse, being trapped with the surrounding hillsides ablaze, I wondered if this is what the newly damned see during their first few minutes in hell. I’d been here before, but I wasn’t afraid. Yet, suddenly, the fire-chief who I guessed to be in charge instructed all of us to drive down the mountain. Even though I quickly became comfortable with the possibility of dying with my father, I was relieved and wanted us to live. After we shared this encounter with death, I knew we would be closer. I wanted to know what that was like. I turned to the firefighter in the cargo area with my dad: “Are you going with us?” He said: They couldn’t spare him. He jumped out. A couple of minutes later, he returned and said: “I’m going with you.” I hurried to the driver’s seat and he went back to watching over my dad. A truck headed out first and I followed.
When I rounded a curve in the road, and descended further, the fire raged on both sides of the vehicle. I could feel an intense heat on my face that somehow radiated through the windshield. I said to the firefighter: “Should we be driving through this?” He said: “Keep going.” Further down the road, the fire got worse as structures everywhere burned out of control. I again questioned what I surmised as a dangerous and reckless attempt to escape. He repeated: “Don’t stop…keep going.” His calm reassurance was the only thing that prevented me from trying to turn the car around. If I had, I wouldn’t be alive. During the entire time, my dad was silent though he must have been in great pain. For a moment, I thought I heard him almost inaudibly praying…for us. Once before, many years ago, my dad prayed his confused and frightened son out from the clutches of hell; he was doing it again. And, no one knew. I barely realized it.
We reached the bottom of the mountain and an ambulance waited. Before I could utter a word, the paramedics got him out of the car and into the ambulance. He was gone. My dad lived for two more months, but he never recovered. I never had the chance I hoped for. I never really thanked him – for saving my life (twice.)
Thank you, dad.