Learning How to Love
Learning How to Love Through Jesus and His Church
By John Paciotti
To see me now and how much I am deep-seated in my Catholic faith and involvement in Prince of Peace’s Prison Ministry, you would never know that my faith journey up until my forties was very shallow and detached. It wasn’t until my life as I knew it began to fall apart that I gave in and finally let God change my heart. Once I found my true identity in Christ and His Church, His love became sealed permanently on my heart, transforming my life by teaching me how to love.
I grew up in northern Minnesota in what I call a marginal Catholic family. I attended Sunday Mass and Holy Days; my mom was active in the lady’s guild; my dad was active in the Knights of Columbus; I made all my sacraments, but we didn’t practice our faith much in the home. As a result, as a young man, I strayed from the Church and attended Mass only sparingly and didn’t study or practice my faith. I thought that God didn’t care if I went to Mass, as long as I didn’t do anything really bad. I believed that requiring attendance at Mass was only a rule of the Catholic Church to get people to donate money. Besides, the Church was full of hypocrites. I was from a small town and I knew everyone. I knew the drinkers and womanizers and dishonest people sitting in the pews. I wasn’t going to be like them.
In my forties, things were falling apart in my life. My marriage with my wife, Susie, was in trouble and on the verge of divorce. My career wasn’t where I had hoped it would be. We were in stressful financial difficulties. My life and marriage were in total disarray. I tried turning to God by attending Mass regularly and becoming active in the Knights of Columbus. Yet, I didn’t think I was getting any help from Him. When some friends from my church invited me to a weekend retreat, at first, I rejected their invitations. I believed I didn’t have time to waste on a retreat. I finally relented, thinking, “At least it will get me out of the house and away from ‘her’ for a weekend.”
That’s when I lived my Cursillo Retreat. That weekend in 1996, I experienced the love of God for the very first time, which included my telling Jesus that I loved Him. In Genesis 1:27, it says, “God created man in his image, in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” I realized that I had created God in my own image and the “god” that I had created wasn’t the God of the bible or the Church. I made a commitment to “Let go and let God.”
I also began living the Cursillo Fourth Day. I met weekly with a small group of like-minded men for support and accountability. I began to study and practice my faith. I practiced the Cursillo method of evangelization which is “Make a friend, be a friend, bring a friend to Christ.” That’s when healing began in my life, and with my marriage and family.
Nowhere in the bible does Jesus tell us, “I love you.” Instead, He shows us His love and thus shows us how to love. He said, “Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). I knew that I must return His love by serving Him and others.
In 2007, when the company I worked for was acquired by a Texas company, we moved from Oklahoma to Houston and joined Prince of Peace. We were settling in and just getting acquainted with our new surroundings, when Susie developed pancreatic cancer. I spent the next months as her caregiver until she passed away in 2009. In 2010, I found healing at an ACTS retreat at POP, and I began to serve as an Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion to Kindred Hospital.
In 2013, another unexpected blessing through Church came my way. I met Maria through my spiritual director, Father Rafa Becerra, who was her parish priest at St. Leo the Great. Maria and I were married in August 2015. During this time, Maria was serving as a volunteer at the Houston detention center conducting services for the undocumented migrants being detained there. She convinced me to join her, which became the beginning of my involvement with the prison ministry.
In 2016, we were having an issue at the detention center, I was asked to contact the head of the Mercy Ministry at POP to help resolve the issue. I contacted Susan Gallagher to complain about what was happening, but her way of resolving the problem was quite unique. She told me that she had been trying to organize a prison ministry at POP and now I was the new chairperson. You’d think at my age I’d have learned not to call someone to complain! We formed a steering team from parishioners who had individually been active this type of ministry, which gave me insight into how to effectively serve in a prison ministry.
I first met one of the ministry’s founding members, Deacon Jeff Schmelter, at my first ACTS retreat, and again when we teamed together. We became good friends. He and two other team members, Harold Heath and Jim Pro, introduced me to the Kairos Prison Ministries, which is an ecumenical Christian group that brings Christ’s love and healing into the prisons by following the Cursillo retreats. I attended my first Kairos retreat as a team member in June 2017, which opened my eyes.
One of the testimonies given on that retreat was from a young man who was a former inmate. He told of abuses he received at the hands of both his mother and father while growing up. He ended up running away from home and eventually was arrested and incarcerated. He attended a Kairos retreat while in prison and gave his life over to the Lord. Today, he is a thriving, productive member of society. When I heard his talk, I cried.
On Sunday, the last day of the retreat, we give a birthday party to the retreatants. A sort of celebration of their rebirth in Christ. Each “brother-in-white” is given their own cupcake with their name on a little flag and a candle. One of the brothers, a very large man in his late thirties or early forties, began to sob uncontrollably. He said that this was the first birthday party he had ever had.
I couldn’t believe that parents could treat their own children that badly. In the ensuing weeks, I reflected on my own life. Why was I so blessed? Why wasn’t I born in the jungles of Brazil or Africa? Why wasn’t I born in the gang infested streets of El Salvador? Why wasn’t I born into poverty here in the US? While my home life wasn’t perfect, it certainly was more loving than that. Our Lord had truly blessed me. Maybe not as much as some, but much more than others. If I had been given parents like that, maybe I, too, would have made horrible decisions.
I recall reflecting on Jesus’ words, “Much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded of the person entrusted with more” (Lk 12:48). That’s when I fell in love with the prison ministry.
I’m not making excuses for the crimes that were committed by these men. What I am saying is that, through love, these brothers and sisters can be brought to Christ. When you sit down at the table and talk with them, you realize they also are God’s children. In each of the first five days of the creation story, God created the world and at the end of each day, He saw that it was “good.” But on the sixth day, He created man and He saw that he was “very good” (Gn 1). He didn’t say some men are very good. No, He said all were very good. We are all, including our incarcerated brothers and sisters, created “very good,” but sometimes good people do bad things. We make bad choices. Some choices are worse than others.
Since then I’ve had the great pleasure of also serving on Kolbe retreats. Kolbe retreats are Catholic prison retreats based on the ACTS retreat. I have served in minimum to maximum security prisons and have never felt threatened. I have only experienced the love of Jesus and enjoyed watching as others receive that love. I’ve seen men come to Christ who previously didn’t know Him. What a blessing for me. I pray that the Lord allows me to serve many more years in the prison ministry.