Conversation with Tony — #1

Conversation with Tony — #1

Fr. Tony Valente

Background: Those of you who have read some of my most recent blog posts regarding conversations with my deceased parents are familiar with this literary technique. It has provided nuance in describing my antiracism journey and helped illuminate the foundational aspects of my life’s journey in “understanding racism” as well as other discoveries since publication of my memoir about a year ago.

I developed nine conversations with them, one for each chapter of the book, in ways that we may have talked with each other as if they were still alive.  I attempted to frame the dialogue in a way that provides some insight on who I think they were as people of the times they lived in, as well as the significant influences they were as my parents.

The last chapter conversation with them was posted last month, and now I am continuing in a similar conversational style with another person who has also had a significant impact on my life. My good friend Fr. Tony Valente, who is featured in Chapter 4 of the book, was a charismatic priest in the Diocese of Rochester for over thirty-five years until his untimely death in 1995.

In my life and that of my wife’s and family, “friend” does not adequately describe what Tony meant to us. His humble spirit greatly influenced all who touched his path and, in our case, he was a mentor, colleague, spiritual advisor, and even Godfather to our youngest son. Tony was a living example of the Eight Beatitudes and therefore incredibly social justice oriented. I believe he will be a great, guest “conversationalist” on many topics including the Catholic Church’s complex relationship to racism.

In my mind Tony was a relatively easy choice to continue this type of dialogue since I’ve been told the previous ones with my parents have helped illuminate readers on the issues of racism, especially the pervasiveness and endurance of white supremacy. One cautionary note: I will be relying on my memory of him as a friend and try not to overstep into his living role as priest, and only anecdotally based on my many observations during the last fifteen years of his life. If you have the book, you might want to refer to Chapter 4 for more background as to how he influenced my life.

Me: “Welcome, Tony! It’s been a very long time since we’ve had a dialogue and I’ve missed those times especially over early morning coffee at the rectory or various neighborhood places. Sandy always said I just as well should move my bed into the rectory! You were much more than a friend and were like a big brother to me.”

Tony: “You honor me by allowing me to participate in these conversations and especially following those with your parents. It is an interesting format you’ve chosen so I thank you for thinking of me. You already did enough by titling Chapter 4 of your memoir in my name as you described your life in the 80s which I was grateful to be a part of.  So why have you chosen me to “converse” with at this point of your journey?”

Me: “That’s a good question and an important one due to some things I’d like to discuss with you and reflect upon. As I mention in the book (primarily on pgs.82-87), your influence not only during the years we knew each other in this life but since has been profound.

I think your impact on me can best be captured with the note you wrote on the back of the special print of Jesus you gave us one time which says: “To Bill & Sandy — This is a print of ‘Christ the Liberator’. I give this to you because you often helped to set us free.”

Although this recognition on your part was very much appreciated and affirming to both of us, at the time I took these words literally as an ‘in the moment’ statement without too much thought beyond that.

As I got into writing the book, however, and planned what I was going to write in this particular chapter, I reread your message and with new eyes realized that you might have planted a subtle challenge to continue our ‘work’. Also, I reflected on the word “us” and now take that to mean a broader ‘Church’ interpretation similar to God’s challenge to St. Francis of Assisi to ‘rebuild my church’. As I did as well, Francis initially missed the point about the deeper implications of what was really being presented to him.

 I don’t mean to place myself in the same category as this ultra-famous saint in thinking I received some form of prophetic message, but we each have our work to do in this life and are summoned in unique ways, just as your words continue to call me which I will get more into shortly.”

Tony: “When I first came to Blessed Sacrament as pastor, you and Sandy probably saw that I was somewhat ‘a fish out of water’ on many levels given my previous pastoral and other ministries, most recently at an inner-city parish composed primarily of people of color. Blessed Sacrament, although located in the city, was much more upscale and cosmopolitan with some diversity which was different from most white parishes where there was hardly any. So, in some respects I was in a comfortable setting despite the differences from my previous work, but your immediate outreach to me and eventual friendship helped me greatly.

I’ve followed your life from ‘afar’ and your journey has been quite remarkable so I am very pleased that your memories of me continue to be a part of it. You have had many twists and turns regarding your faith journey and now seem to be confronted with the contrast from your foundational Roman Catholic roots to now one of being more of a ‘roaming’ Catholic if I could add a touch of sardonic humor!

Me: “As usual, you cut right into the heart of some of what I’d like to discuss a bit. Without repeating the background of my faith journey outlined in the book, since publication the path I thought I was on has been greatly disrupted. There are a number of factors involved and one of these began early this year in my home parish at that time.

Briefly, I wrote a letter to both the bishop and the parish Pastor and included a copy of my book for each of them. My primary goal was a request to be ‘allowed’ to speak at the parish about the book, specifically as to how parishioners could possibly be enlightened regarding antiracism through my own personal experiences. This is a subject that most Catholics aren’t taught and unfortunately never think about. Shortly after, I received a nice, three-page letter from the bishop who, among other comments, more or less deferred to the pastor for more specific follow-up with me.

That then began several months of simply trying to arrange an introductory meeting with the pastor since he was relatively new and I had never met him … and still haven’t. That may sound strange but the COVID pandemic era which we are still unfortunately in had moved me resorting to online Mass attendance vs. being there live. However, I must add in all honesty that I was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the Church on many levels so I just don’t want to rely solely on the convenient ‘COVID’ excuse for not being more physically present. Interestingly and not surprisingly, this is now a common occurrence among many Catholics.

The pastor continued to demur, offer excuses, and make requests for me to listen to some of his parish programs available online before we met while, as he indicated to me, was going to read my book. But, after several months and attempts to just have a basic, introductory meeting wherever/whenever, I gave up, sent him a fairly comprehensive parting note, and left the parish.”

Tony: “That really saddens me to hear this. Let alone the fact that you wrote a book about an important Church social justice issue such as racism, your rich history of parish and overall diocesan work regarding both charity related initiatives and justice advocacy should have been of great interest to him as it was to me over forty years ago.

To thread the needle a bit more on these topics, I know you realize that there has always been somewhat of a tension between the concepts of ‘justice’ and ‘charity’ not only within the Church but in the faith world at-large. Justice work is much more of a challenge since it cuts to the essence of the need for acts of charity in the first place. In my priestly ministry wherever I was working, I attempted to place a focus and emphasis on justice in thought, word, and deed in addition to calling for reaching out to the marginalized through service and material donations.

Unfortunately, acts of charity can be an easy ‘out’ for many people and when justice enters into the discussion, resistance and challenges begin to rise up; charity then becomes muddled through thinking they are the same. Perhaps this may partially explain the lack of follow through on the part of this pastor.”

Me: “Your own sense of charity and kindness continues to shine in offering this rationale. However, I think there are other things going on. But before I get into what they might be, let me add to your train of thought regarding the confusion and tension between justice and charity with some Fr. Richard Rohr thoughts on the subject. In a 10.31.21 meditation of his, he states:

“We have confused justice and charity. Charity was traditionally considered the highest virtue, popularly thought of as a kind of magnanimous, voluntary giving of ourselves, preferably for selfless motives. As long as we rose to this level occasionally by donating food, gifts, or money at the holidays or in times of crisis, we could think of ourselves as charitable people operating at the highest level of virtue.

What has been lacking is the virtue of justice. Justice and charity are complementary but clearly inseparable in teachings of Doctors of the Church, as well as the social encyclical letters of almost all popes over the last century. The giving and caring spirit of charity both motivates and completes our sense of justice, but the virtue of charity cannot legitimately substitute for justice.

Persons capable of doing justice are not justified in preferring to “do charity.” Although this has clearly been taught on paper, I would say it is the great missing link in the practical preaching and lifestyle of the church. We have ignored the foundational obligation of justice in our works of charity! For centuries we have been content to patch up holes temporarily (making ourselves feel benevolent) while in fact maintaining the institutional structures that created the holes (disempowering people on the margins). Now it has caught up with us in unremitting poverty, massive income disparity, cultural alienation, and human and environmental abuse.”

Tony: “That’s wonderfully stated and I can see why you refer to this well-known Franciscan priest so often in your writing. So, with that amplification what are some of the other things that give you pause with not only this particular pastor but perhaps the diocese and the Church overall?”

Me: “Tragically, this particular pastor is not the exception in the diocese … and in my opinion, amazingly his leadership style in seemingly avoiding the issue of racism is similar to many other Diocesan priests. I know this first hand from my continued work and many direct experiences; but it is not surprising given the Church’s overall history regarding racism. Other much more famous authors, academics, and priests such as Fr. Brian Massingale, Fr. Dan Horan, Alex Mikulich, and Olga Segora have each written and preached about the Church’s role regarding racism and in some cases go back centuries to the 1400s.

In fact, the history through their informed eyes and writings specifically portrays how the Church was the pre-Christopher Columbus authority and originator of what became slavery as we know it in the so-called ‘New’ World, as well as the evil outcomes that followed including through these current times. I know that I was never taught any of this startingly history through my Catholic education and you probably weren’t exposed to it much in the seminary either. Most Catholics I know say the same thing about their lack of education regarding the true racist history of this country.

The real tragedy, however, is that there is hardly any recognition of this history on the part of the vast majority of Catholic/Christian laity. This is because racism, let alone its deep Catholic roots and history, is hardly ever preached from the pulpit or built into general parish educational programming. As you were very familiar with, typically parish Social Justice Committees do some great work but their efforts are primarily focused on charity activities vs. the much harder justice work and comprise a minuscule segment of ‘usual faithful suspects’ at any parish.

Yet in contrast and as just one example, there are hours-long programs on the local parish’s website regarding the apparitions of Mary and associated, purported implications for the laity to be aware of. In In my opinion, this is what I would call a lack and intentional avoidance of any truth-telling regarding the enduring racism in our midst. This leadership obliviousness has greatly contributed to the perpetuation of what I have identified in previous blog posts as ‘white confoundedness’ about racism. It has also led to my new personal status as a ’roaming Catholic’!”

Tony: “As you know I was usually never lost for words but they are hard to come up with right now after what you just described. Can you elaborate with some examples on what you mean by the “enduring racism in our midst”? That is a very provocative statement and I know you wouldn’t say this if there weren’t reasons and examples of local racism.”

Me: “Someone just told me last weekend at a local Black Lives Matter (BLM) Saturday vigil that she was surprised by the several recent racist and antisemitic incidents because they happened in the eastern Rochester suburbs. She had thought that eastside communities were more socially conscious and sensitive than others. Unfortunately, racism and antisemitism seem to know no bounds here in the Rochester area or elsewhere in this world.

To respond directly to your question, the BLM vigil I was participating in had a location change from the originally planned location to where I live in Fairport. This was due in response to a serious, recent racist/antisemitic incident that coincidentally happened at the sister church of the parish I left earlier this year.

In a TV interview about the incident which included some serious property damage, the same pastor I mentioned previously suggested that “… he would like to give them the benefit of the doubt; maybe they were just young, and need to be schooled, educated, and informed in a better way…”.

Despite the forgiveness-oriented sentiment, he missed an opportunity to call for a broader, community response and his statement appears to be an attempt to somehow marginalize the incident by identifying and isolating young people (i.e., ‘just kids’) as the perpetrators.

Even if that was the case, their parents and others in the community bear some responsibility and should at minimum be included in his recommendation for broadened “schooling, education, and information” (to paraphrase his words).

 Furthermore, all local church leaders bear a responsibility to do this from their respective pulpits, especially my former Catholic parish where the incident actually happened. Whether this has or will actually be done at the parish I will probably never know. But I have my doubts due to the reasons I mentioned previously about the Catholic Church’s general reticence in discussing racial injustice directly with the laity in our churches.

As it turns out, ten days after the incident which happened over the Thanksgiving holiday, there was a community wide prayer service celebrated interestingly enough at the local Lutheran church.

The key now is what meaningful action will come out of this prayerful gathering from our local faith communities including those of the Catholic persuasion, the church nexus of this incident. Tragically (I seem to be using this word a lot lately), similar incidents have happened in other eastern suburbs and these are only the ones that grab the headlines; my suspicion is that there are many other local racist and antisemitic incidents that are occurring similar to the atrocities happening routinely/daily across the country.”

Tony: “I am again saddened to hear all this and what is going on in the Rochester community, including your views about the Church’s poor racial justice responsiveness. You will recall that you and I worked together along with many others at Blessed Sacrament Church in an ‘Eight Beatitudes’ oriented way and that seems to be what’s needed today.

Essentially this all begins with love as the foundation living within the ultimate, universal scripture that we are ALL made in the ‘image and likeness of God’ (Genesis 1:26). And I like what you’ve been saying that this has to be done via thought and deed with ‘radical intentionality’ and not just mouthing mere words … if and when they are even spoken by Church leaders. Again, silence is the enemy as you’ve pointed out many times in your work today and even going back to the 80’s in supporting my ministry.

At the beginning of ‘my’ (!) Chapter 4, I’m drawn to the quotes on p.79 and especially Dorothy Day’s where she once said: “The greatest challenge of the day is how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us.” The third quote by the famous Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe, relates to this and especially justice; it reads “Today our prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others; … men and women completely convinced that love of God which (is not premised on) justice for others is a farce.”

Note again Arrupe’s emphasis on JUSTICE. It seems to me that the resolution to most of the problems disclosed in our conversation here begins with thoughtful reflection on these wonderful statements as well as living in the way that both Jesus and Ft. Francis of Assisi modeled their lives.

Even though I’d love to, I don’t want to carry on too much longer with one of my lengthy “sermons”, so perhaps we could chat again sometime. I have a feeling we have just scratched the surface!”

Me: “I’d love to and yes, there are many other things I’d like to discuss with you and this long-in-coming initial discussion has laid the groundwork.

But I’d be remiss at this point if I didn’t wish you a belated Happy Birthday … you would have been eighty-nine years old this month and I am honored that I could reveal to my readers a little more about your amazing but unfortunately too short life.

Your wisdom and sincerity continue to shine offering gratefully offering hope and solace. Until the next time, Peace!”

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