Fr. Gene Pistacchio, OFM

When I reminisce about my earlier years, particularly when I graduated from Mount Pleasant High in Providence, R.I., I began to wonder about a possible career as a special education teacher. While I attended Rhode Island College, I studied special education, but I quickly learned that I did not want to be in the classroom all day, every day. For a brief time, I considered joining the Air Force to eventually become a commercial airline pilot. With each of these prospects, I didn’t feel settled, as my heart yearned for a way of life that was deeply fulfilling, as well as challenging.

I began volunteer work teaching religious education to mentally challenged adults in the diocesan Special Religious Education Department. I worked with Sister Mary Sullivan, FMM, in this gentle apostolate. Sr. Mary had such solicitude and care for special populations that truly inspired me. After college, I was employed in a sheltered workshop for mentally and emotionally challenged adults, implementing treatment plans for their improvement of daily living skills. Each experience and every person were wonderful occasions of grace!

My work with challenged adults sensitized me to the wonder of God’s grace in “frail humanity.” In their open embrace, I deeply felt God’s love and glimpsed what Francis of Assisi experienced when a lowly leper embraced him.

My interest in becoming a Franciscan friar stems back to trying to find that deep inner solitude, where the whisper of God is heard. In the midst of such beautiful grounds at the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, with tall pines and pebbled walkway around a garden of splendor that led to a grotto in honor of Our Lady of Lourdes, I repaired a fence that enclosed an altar dedicated to our Lady. From mid-morning hours to late afternoons on Saturdays, the fresh smell of the pine trees, their soft needles, and the warm summer breezes caressed my soul.

During inclement weather, I worked inside, washing and buffing the marble floors in the chapel, the heart of the sisters’ community. I asked God for guidance in that little chapel, where the sisters came to adore Jesus in community prayer. I remember pondering: “What should I do with my life?”

I began to realize how important Francis’s prayer before the crucifix had become. “Lord, give me insight and wisdom, so I might always discern, your holy and true will.” Little did I know in those quiet days, the seeds of my Franciscan vocation were being planted!

Surrounded by nature, I became more enamored with St. Francis and his love for “brother sun and sister moon.” I read a biography of Francis, given to me by Sister Mary Ambrose, FMM, that I devoured. And like the scroll eaten by St. John in the book of Revelation, it was sweetness to my spirit. As I cleaned and repaired sacred places, I thought of the voice that Francis heard: “Repair my Church, for as you see, it is falling into ruin.”

I imagine, like Francis, I was content to wash floors in God’s house and listen to brother wind brisk through screened windows as sun and storm visited those sacred grounds. Teaching religious education, reading about Francis of Assisi, and cleaning sacred places was the foundation of what was to come!

As I reflect on the challenge and gift of consecrated life in the brotherhood of Francis of Assisi, I now know that teaching mentally challenged adults in those early formative years had formed me to touch the face of God in “frail humanity,” deeply rooted in the Incarnation.

Repairing gates, cleaning floors and chapels were transformed by God into an intense sacramental life to “unite what has fallen apart, bring home those who have lost their way, and to heal wounds,” as Francis once wrote.

Now, deep in the “grotto” of the confessional, suffering and burdened souls are “repaired” and given new hope by God’s forgiveness. In the shared vulnerability of persons hungry for God in spiritual guidance, wounds are healed and people find their way back to God.

The bread of life and the sacred cup now become my instruments of unity, homecoming and healing and remind me of the One who even now, patiently and gently calls me to do all in his memory!

— This essay was written in 2004 when Fr. Gene was serving at Saint Anthony Shrine in Boston, Mass. It appeared in the December 2004 issue of The Anthonian magazine.