Connections Surround Us

The Diocese of Trenton held their annual seminarian retreat for those men in the process of discerning the call to the priesthood at Stella Maris Retreat Center in Elberon, NJ from July 20 – July 24. The Monitor which is the newspaper for the diocese was invited to some of the events on July 23, and I was blessed to receive the assignment to represent them as a correspondent at this event.


The Bishop of the Diocese of Trenton, David O’Connell was scheduled to celebrate Mass and spend the day with the seminarians on Thursday, and Wednesday night the news of his mother’s passing at the age of 89 was released. I was unsure of what to expect when I arrived at Stella Maris in the morning, and those working there shared that sentiment in telling me that the Bishop may not attend.


A short time later, we learned that the Bishop would be making the trip Stella Maris to spend the day with the men preparing for the priesthood. It was this dedication by the Bishop coupled with the fact that he had relationships with many of the seminarians that began my thinking about connections.


Father Michael Whalen, the retreat master, or as he told me he rather be known as the “retreat facilitator”, went to the seminary at the same time as Bishop O’Connell and the two were roommates at one point in the process. That connection has lasted over thirty years.


The connections between the seminarians was evident as well especially in the down time between the activities and particularly with the men who have been in the process for several years. Several of them spoke of that bond as one of “brotherhood” or “comradery” and referred to the importance of spending time with men who “will be fellow priests in the Diocese of Trenton together for the rest of their lives”. It is that type of commitment which is under scrutiny by our secular society a commitment to anything for a lifetime, as evidenced by the societal view of marriage.


I spoke about that with Father Whalen and he agreed, “Our culture is mired in secularism so the commitment to God and to celibacy are challenging for these men because our culture is cynical about that and cynical overall”. We also spoke about the connection of the Bishop and the seminarians, “He’s unique. Ideally that should be the role of the Bishop. Your Bishop is very hands on”.


Father Whalen and I spoke about the connection between the seminarians and the local parishes, he said: “These men are more involved in parish life than my generation. They’re much more plugged in than we were.” He made a good point about how they will be better prepared when they become priests because of that experience on the parish level during their formation.


Bishop O’Connell spoke about the connection between preparation and being ready to succeed at a particular job. The Bishop referenced a doctor without the proper medical training, a lawyer without background in the Constitution, or a dentist without the proper schooling all being negative for society. In the same way he was encouraging the seminarians that all of the years of preparation have a purpose and will provide them with the proper preparation to serve God and God’s people.


I made a connection with a seminarian, Jim Smith, who is about halfway through his formation journey to being a priest. We spoke for a while about the elements of the workshops at the retreat. I then mentioned that I had recently received some opportunities that changed the course of where I thought certain things in my life were going in the short term. He then said something wonderful, “God has a plan for our lives, its amazing the difference between our plans, the way we think our life should go, and God’s plan” that ties into my most recent commentary piece about Hurricane Sandy recovery in Union Beach.


In that piece, I wrote about the importance of discerning God’s plan for our lives, and my attempt to connect with that message by going to Union Beach and gaining a new perspective on my own life.


In the days prior to my assignment, I was given some background on the retreat and I learned that the group contained four men in their first year of the seminary. One of those four newcomers, Ray Patsky, made a connection with me in that he saw during a break in between sessions that I was looking to speak with one of the members to gain information for my feature article. Ray is a local guy to the area where I grew up, so we had a lot in common. I asked how he got on the path to the priestly vocation and he explained that it was through a program at his parish.


His parish participated in the Spiritual Adoption of the Unborn Child and Ray got involved with setting it up and organizing members of his parish around this effort. Those who are unfamiliar can gain valuable further information at and it was during this process where he gained the insight that he was being called to the priestly vocation. It was “part of his journey” as he put it and he went through a discernment period which lasts nine months. In that program he visited a new parish each month for nine months. Ray was very interested in how diverse the Diocese of Trenton was from the cultural perspective as well as the differences in the land area. It includes rural, urban, mountain and beach areas which present new and unique challenges in each circumstance for the parishes in the diocese. He was very outgoing and personable I could see God’s talents at work within him.


I made another connection while walking down a hallway with Jim Smith at the Stella Maris center, I noticed a plaque on the wall to Saint Katherine Drexel. The house and the grounds were, at one time, the summer home of the Drexel family and it is there where Saint Katherine was thought to have discerned the decision to become a nun, and the rest is history. My connection is that my family prayed to Saint Katherine Drexel while my mother battled with cancer for four years. My mom was being treated in Philadelphia, where Saint Katherine and the Drexel family kept their primary residence. I was not aware that Stella Maris was formerly the summer home for the second American saint. I shared the story with Jim Smith, who showed me some rooms saying this “would have been the foyer” where the Drexel family would have greeted guests. It was an amazingly unexpected connection to make.


After the celebration of Mass, Bishop O’Connell approached me and provided me with the text of his homily to the seminarians for use in my article. I thanked him and also offered my condolences on the loss of his mother, explaining that I had lost my mother years ago. I could see that he was suffering and he replied, “You understand what I am going through”. He went on to explain that while others have expressed sorrow and he appreciated that, he knew that I understood what he was feeling. We made a connection over a shared experience. We also talked about my parish and the priests there and what a truly blessed place the parish community is at Saint Mary Mother of God parish.


It was time for lunch and I made connections with several of the seminarians. Some knew my pastor from their time at other parishes, some knew a newly ordained priest who came from my home parish, and others knew people from St. Catherine’s, which is another local church my wife and I attend at points as well. One of the seminarians, Roy, mentioned that he was going to be staying at St. Catherine’s rather than going home for a few weeks. We connected over the shared experience of knowing certain people which helped my interviews with them for the feature story I submitted on the event.


I had some time in between a session they were in privately, and I was waiting in a room with some windows overlooking the beach. I began talking to a lady who was there because she worked with the diocese and Father Thomas Vala came walking through, and immediately came over to see me and say hello. Father Thomas was assigned to a parish my wife and I were a part of when we lived on the beach before Hurricane Sandy. He helped us get through some challenging times in dealing with being displaced from our home and with trying to determine where God wanted us to be in our lives. Father Thomas got transferred to a parish close to Trenton, and it ends up that was the parish this lady I was speaking with attended, so we all had a common connection.


It just so happened that Father Thomas had to preside over a funeral in the area near the retreat house, and he decided to drop by and see someone there before heading to my former parish where he was going to say hello to some former co-workers. I believe that our paths were supposed to cross that day, and it was great to see him again.


Then, this past Saturday evening, my wife and I were talking about my assignment covering the retreat and the progress I was making on the feature article (which was due on Monday) and we decided to go to St. Catherine’s for the Vigil Mass because we were at a local park nearby. We sat down and just as Mass was starting, in comes the seminarian I mentioned before, Roy, he sat two rows in front of my wife and I. During the handshake of peace, he saw me and remembered my name and gave me a big smile, we had made a connection. After Mass, we spoke with the pastor there and Roy and he was able to meet my wife and we talked about the retreat and his plans for the time he would be staying there.


In life there are no coincidences, and that is what I thought about again that evening as my wife and I drove home, the lasting connections that we make through seemingly every day routine situations. It is important that we make and keep these connections, it will serve as a reminder of how truly blessed we are for each day we are given in this life.



Return To The Playground: The Stalled Recovery of Union Beach

This article was originally published elsewhere locally – I share it with you all here on my blog:

I had a rather difficult week on a number of fronts last week, so I set out for Union Beach last Friday because it always helps me to gain perspective. When I have problems, and some of them are significant, going to Union Beach and seeing the remains of homes still damaged from Hurricane Sandy helps to reorder my outlook. It serves as a reminder that if things seem bad, they can always be a lot worse.


I drove down Florence Avenue past many homes that had been repaired and restored and past businesses that unfortunately have not. I turned onto Front Street where many empty lots and active or inactive construction sites are scattered along the waterfront. I parked the car and got out to look at the New York City skyline which was slightly obstructed by haze on this hot summer afternoon. I walked out to the end of a short pier next to the beachfront area and the breeze picked up which felt like such a welcome change from the humid air I just drove through further inland.


I looked down briefly at my buzzing smartphone to check an email related to some of the disappointing news I had received earlier that morning. I did not notice that a man had joined me at the end of the pier until his deep baritone voice bellowed, “Excuse me, sir, could you tell me where that amusement park down there is called?” He was pointing toward the Waterfront Park in neighboring Keansburg which is visible in the distance to our right, directly east of our location. “Yes sir that is the Keansburg Waterfront Park. It has water rides, amusement park rides and a boardwalk area with games and food as well as stuff for the kids. You should check it out sometime” I replied.


The man smiled back at me, “Yes I plan to come down with my kids, I am on a break from work right now. I drive a delivery truck” he told me while rotating his head around as if on a swivel, trying to take in as much as he could of the scenery around us on this beautiful summer day. I noticed the golf type shirt with the logo of his company on it earlier and assumed he was a route delivery driver. “My wife’s cousin does that same job, it is not easy” I said as the wind blew sand on the people on the beach next to us. “Yeah it can be tough at times, but when I get route stops on the Shore I try and take 10 minutes or so and catch a break, especially on days like this” he said as he fixed his baseball cap. “Oh yeah absolutely you have to do that. I think we are all entitled to a break, that is what I am doing out here too” I explained.


The man pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and said “I have to head all the way up to Warren after this to make a delivery stop” I asked: “How far away is that from here like 45 minutes” He smiled shook his head and said “Yes sir exactly right 45 minutes on the nose” He motioned to his phone and said, “Pretty soon they are going to be calling me wondering where I am, so I better go. It was very nice talking with you sir” I smiled shook his hand and said “Yes it was nice to chat with you, safe driving” and with that he went off down the pier to head north to Warren.


I reflected on the many jobs and occupations that people have and the skills that it takes to be successful at them. I thought about some of my friends and how they have expressed that they would not be able to be a writer like I am and put together all types of articles and creative work. I guess we are all called for different functions and to use our gifts and talents to achieve different objectives.


I walked back toward the street and talked to a lady who was walking a dog, she smiled and asked how I was doing. She told me, “You should head toward the park it is shadier there, this Sun can get hot”. I told her that I was heading that way and to enjoy the rest of her day. I proceeded to head to the park, one of my usual stops in Union Beach.

Jack’s Playground


The Fireman’s Park area in Union Beach features a playground named in memory of Jack Pinto, one of the victims of the Sandy Hook school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. I covered the dedication of the playground back over two years ago, and I have written several stories about the recovery of the Shore from Hurricane Sandy that feature the playground.


I stop at the playground nearly every time I come into Union Beach whether it is for a story or just for some leisure time. I went that day under sunny beautiful skies and first stopped at the area where Jack Pinto’s handprint is on a plaque. I noticed immediately that two teddy bears and some flowers were left there with a ribbon tied around them to attach them to the stone which bears the handprint. I thought it was very kind that someone brought him these items, and I said a prayer for him and for all the victims of the Newtown tragedy as well as the survivors and their families.


Under the gazebo sat two ladies talking in gorgeous weather and sharing stories. Some children were playing on the slide and I walked over that way and I was greeted by a little boy who ran and jumped in the air. He landed right next to me and yelled, “Hi!” with the youthful exuberance I once remember that I possessed. I replied back to him, “Hi there buddy. How are you?” He yelled while running toward the slide, “I’m great!!” He started to climb the ladder and I got nervous and his mother rushed over, grabbed his arm, and scolded him for trying such a bold feat.


I began to talk with both of his parents who were really nice people, “I have never seen him act like this he never would try something like that” his mother explained. “He is probably just showing off in front of me” I replied and we all laughed. The boy’s father introduced me to the family dog and explained that they are from out of the area and stopped to visit a friend who lives in town on their way to the Shore for the weekend. “This park is great, really nice” the boy’s father said while looking around. “I was here the day they dedicated it. It was really sunny and warm just like today” I explained. “How do you think the recovery is going?” he asked. “Not very well. You have so many people still waiting for money for their homes or they ran out of money trying to pay their mortgage on their unlivable home while paying rent on their current residence for close to three years” I commented.


We spoke for a few minutes about Sandy and how many people think that everything is recovered and great down in New Jersey on the Shore. I likened the relief effort to a car that keeps on stalling before it gets into second gear. They liked that analogy. Then the kids were going wild so I let them get back to parenting and I moved on to another part of the park where I bumped into a man on his break from a construction job.


Across The Bay


He noticed I was wearing a New York Knicks shirt and he immediately said “I am sorry” and we both chuckled (the Knicks had the worst record in the league last season) and he said “If it makes you feel any better I am a Mets fan so I know heartache” and we both started laughing again. He told me that he was working on the rebuilding of a property across the street from the park. “Progress is slow but this town got hit hard” he remarked. “I know I was here the day after Sandy came through and I was totally shocked at the level of destruction. It was like a nuclear bomb got dropped here” I explained.


We talked about the slow recovery or stalled recovery of homeowners here and in the area. Then he had to get back to work. I remained and listened to the calm rush of the water against the shore line. There is something so soothing to that sound. I watched the boats out in the Bay and listened as the birds chirped in the trees behind me. I walked past a property where building materials were tied up and unused seemingly for months, and the lot where the home was torn down had pilings of cement put in to elevate a house, yet nothing was there. I remember this lot was in the same condition five or six months ago when I was there. The reality that it will most likely remain in that condition haunted me. This was a home for a family that is now somewhere else, another reminder of the true toll Sandy took on my beloved Jersey Shore.


The homes on either side of that lot were in similar disrepair or in stages of unfinished construction. One house where the siding was half finished on the sides and the owner obviously ran out of money, had plywood sealing off the back of the lower level with graffiti spray painted on it. One message read: Smile You’re on camera referring to the news coverage of the destruction.


I mentioned earlier that my trips to Union Beach, if nothing else, yield two things: perspective on my own “problems” and interactions with really kind people. I experienced both again today at a time when I was sorely in need of it to remedy my soul. I watched the white puffy clouds move across the sky and looked out across the Bay to the Manhattan skyline where I could see the Freedom Tower, or as they call it now, One World Trade Center. It was towering above the other buildings like a giant looming over midgets.


I always think when I look at this grand new building about the former World Trade Center and the 9/11 terror attacks. I reflected again as I stood there in the afternoon sun now so many years later, and felt very small, but at the same time very lucky to have the blessing of a brand new day of life. The park behind me was dedicated to a boy who was killed at 6 years old by a very sick young man in a horrific tragedy. He and others that day never got the chance at life that I have received.


I looked back across the Bay and remembered those who tragically lost their lives on 9/11 and so many of those victims were young people in the prime of their lives and careers. So many of them were firefighters, police, and brave first responders who continued to climb up as others fled down and out of the buildings.


I returned to the same fact: I am still here and I am blessed to have the chance at life that so many others did not receive. I am surrounded by homes destroyed by a horrible storm which I also lived through and survived. I am here, we are all here for a unique purpose. It is these days and times in Union Beach where I gain the perspective to keep pushing forward down the road of life to find the answers and to determine God’s plan for my life. I hope that this article inspires you to do the same.


(Frank J. Maduri is a freelance writer and journalist who has numerous publishing credits for magazines, websites, and major news sources. He has covered Hurricane Sandy, the recovery effort, and social justice issues for years. He continues to use his talents to raise awareness of issues and is searching for God’s plan for his life.)