March 30, 2019
“Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
Many Christians say the words at least once daily. And forgiveness is a major mandate of all major religions.
But how to forgive is what Paulist Fr. Frank Desiderio calls “The Big Question.” It’s one he’s been exploring and teaching for almost two decades.
It started after Fr. Frank, then serving at Paulist Productions, produced a television segment about prayer and healing. When he was searching for his next topic, he thought about what gets in the way of healing.
“I was talking to a priest-psychologist. I asked him, ‘What’s the greatest block to healing?’” Fr. Frank once told an audience. “He said, ‘Lack of forgiveness.’ And that started me on the journey.”
The film features Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh, Sister Helen Prejean and others known for spiritual leadership in the face of great injustice, violence, or both. A first responder to a mass shooting of Amish school children speaks of the Amish community’s swift forgiveness of the family of the killer.
Today, Fr. Frank also presents parish missions and workshops about forgiveness. He asks the participants what they’re grappling with.
“I often feel, I wouldn’t do this to you, don’t do this to me,” one woman said at a session.
“I’m curious about self-forgiveness,” a man asked.
“How do you let go? I know I need to,” another wondered.
In fact, Fr. Frank’s method to help people forgive is encapsulated in the acrostic “LET GO.”
He explains the concept for each letter:
“Look deeply at what went wrong, empathy for the other is key, tell the story differently, give the gift of forgiveness, one day at a time keep forgiveness strong.”
While mercy and forgiveness have been central pieces of Fr. Frank’s creative and ministerial work in recent years, he’s also a poet.
“I started writing poetry as an outgrowth of preparing to preach,” he says. “So as I’m writing the homily I realize, ‘Oh that’s a really nice little image’ or ‘Oh, look I like that phrase all those words go together nicely,’ or ‘Oh that’s fresh.’ And I started pulling out those pieces and creating a poem that kind of came out of the Sunday readings. So that led to a project to write a poem for every Sunday of the three year liturgical cycle, which I am pretty close to completing.”
He had his hands all over this young girl.
Cringeworthy, to see this middle-aged guy
pawing his prize in the luxury box
at the hockey game. Pucks zipping down
the ice unnoticed; she zipping open
his cargo pants pocket to get his wallet
to tip the waiter who brought her dessert.
The widow fingers the last of her cash,
her bank account an empty memory.
As she leaves the discount grocery
she gives her change to a beggar;
she’s got nothing left but prayer.
In the gift she gets a glimpse,
feels the undertow of divine love.
Sometimes Fr. Frank’s poems are more funny and uplifting.
God walks into a bar
sits next to you
and orders two shots.
“You have to have heart;
people don’t care
what you know,
they need to know
that you care.”
God orders another round.
“Here’s to a sharp eye
to keep your vision clear
and tell others the great story.”
God signals for two more.
“And guts, at your core
a driving drumbeat,
courage to stay the course.”
“Love with all your
heart, mind and strength.”
It was Fr. Frank’s love for writing and literature that drew him to the Paulist community. After graduating with an English degree from University of Maryland at College Park, he worked for a children’s book publisher.
One day, he looked up the Conference of Major Superiors of Men in his native Washington, D.C. Then he showed up at their office unannounced to discuss entering the priesthood. The head of the conference talked with him.
“He started going through all the different religious orders and then he changed tactics and said ‘What are you interested in?’” Fr. Frank says. He told him, “I’m interested in media: radio, television, books. And he said, ‘Oh you gotta go talk to the Paulist Fathers.’”
He showed up at their doorstep the same day at lunchtime, and his conversation with the Paulists has never ended. Fr. Frank was ordained a priest in 1982.
Fr. Frank says that from an early age he’d felt a profound attraction to his faith, to the realization that Jesus died for him individually, as much as for all humankind. A high school retreat emboldened his faith.
Later, he says, “I kind of surrendered to the idea of being a priest. It brought a profound sense of peace. And I said, ‘OK, well, God’s opened the peace door for me. I’d better go through it.’”
Not that it’s always easy. When asked the hardest part of being a priest, Fr. Frank answers honestly, “You mean after celibacy?”
And yet, he says, the power of celibacy “is that you have this witness that I’m willing to go against my nature because of something I believe so strongly … It’s kind of it’s like a spiritual Aikido. So you have the sexual energy and you have to basically transform it into compassion.”
And compassion is a characteristic of the Paulists.
“Our country is so fractious now,” Fr. Frank says in an interview in summer 2018. “We need to be working to try and understand each other. That’s the Paulist message of reconciliation rather than, you know, just digging into a position of I’m right, you’re wrong.”
Does he still struggle with the big questions of finding compassion and forgiveness?
“A lot of the biggest forgiveness I had to do in my life was was connected with that film (The Big Question),” he says. “I thought it was so funny that I’m making a movie about forgiveness and I’m running into all these resentments.”
It was then that he adopted a phrase he says he still repeats today. “Irony wakes me up every morning.”
Today, Fr. Frank practices compassion, and experiences irony, as director of St. Mary’s at the Lake, the Paulist summer retreat at Lake George, NY, and as first consulter, or chief advisor, to the president of the Paulist Fathers.
Through May, he also is serving as the temporary administrator of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City.