When Hall of Fame catcher Mike Piazza said he was going to tell “my story,” the nearly 400 Catholic men attending the first ManUp New York conference at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie could have been excused if their first thought was of a game-winning home run.
After all, Piazza hit 427 homers during his 16-year Major League career spent primarily with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Mets. But on Oct. 23, Piazza was giving a personal testimony of his Catholic faith, in and out of baseball.
He spoke about the example of his mother, who brought him and his brothers to Mass each week at their parish church outside Philadelphia when they were growing up. He recalled one time as an 8- or 9-year-old boy when he misbehaved in church and his mother plainly expressed her disappointment before sending him to his room. She explained how Mass provided a weekly opportunity for him to thank the Lord for the blessings he had bestowed on their family. “It had a lasting effect,” said the 53-year-old Piazza.
As a minor leaguer with the Dodgers, Piazza told of how on weekend road trips he would check the Yellow Pages to learn the location of the nearest Catholic church, and he would walk, take a cab or, on occasion, hitchhike to Sunday Mass. “It was my rock,” he said.
As a young star newly on the scene with the Dodgers at age 23, Piazza remembered living on the beach, making good money and getting invited to cool Hollywood parties.
For a time, he dabbled in the playboy lifestyle before “waking up the next day and finding out, ‘This is not all it’s cracked up to be.’” Piazza described those experiences as “a joyless quest for joy.”
As he related his own experiences, he suggested to the men in the audience that they might have found their own temptations after a business success enabled them to buy a nice car or a fancy watch.
Getting traded from the Dodgers, for whom Piazza had hoped to play for his entire career, jolted Piazza. Ultimately, he ended up in New York, which he described as “a culture shock,” especially when his first games for the Mets didn’t go well. Doubts started creeping in, and Piazza began to wonder if he should have accepted the Dodgers’ final contract offer.
At the time, he remembers visiting St. Patrick’s Cathedral and praying, “Lord, I put it in your hands.”
“This incredible sense of peace came over me…I said, ‘I’m going to do the best I can, but I need your help,’” he said.
Piazza also talked about the faith that he and his wife of 15 years share with their children, speaking about the “amazing experience” of his oldest daughter’s recent confirmation.
He told the men “you have to make God the center of your life and pass that along to your children.”
He candidly spoke about “social media pressures” families face today and said that his wife especially does a great job supervising their kids online and, when necessary, taking away phone and iPad privileges.
Piazza encouraged the men to keep praying, saying that when friends gather at his family home, it’s clear “we pray at our house.”
“Never, ever, ever be ashamed of your faith,” he said.
Piazza stressed participation in the sacraments as a way to draw closer to God, with a special focus on the Eucharist and confession. “We believe as Catholics that God, His Son and the Holy Spirit give us the tools to get closer to Him.”
He also told the men that it’s never too late to start being a better Catholic, proudly offering the example of his father, who reconnected with his Catholic faith in the last few years before his recent death.
“It’s not how we start, it’s how we finish,” Piazza said. “I’m proud of you guys—and spread the word!”
After Piazza’s talk, George Knapp, who wore a Mets uniform shirt with Piazza’s name and No. 31 on the back, told CNY that the best thing Piazza said was “don’t be afraid to talk about your faith.”
Knapp, facilitator of the Men’s Ministry at Holy Trinity parish in Poughkeepsie, said the Saturday morning program of prayer and Mass has room for more participants.
ManUp New York also featured many other talks and special presentations. It is based on a successful model of men’s gospel reflection groups first established in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia more than two decades ago that has since expanded to New Jersey and now New York.
Eustace Mita, founder of ManUp Philly, was present for the first ManUp New York men’s spirituality conference, sponsored by the archdiocesan Adult Faith Formation office under the direction of Elizabeth Guevara de Gonzalez. Speaking to the men embarking on the day, Mita told them they would become “part of the rescue mission” to a world in need of healing.
The day also featured presentations by Cardinal Dolan on “Manning Up in the Face of Adversity, St. Joseph—Model of True Manhood”; Father Donald Calloway, M.I.C., an author of books on Catholic spirituality, on “Consecration to St. Joseph: The Wonders of Our Spiritual Father”; and Dr. Greg Bottaro, a Catholic psychologist, on “Mental Health: The Epidemic of Addiction, Depression and Suicide Among Men in Today’s World.”
In his talk, the cardinal spoke about being a young priest attending a wake with another man sobbing over the deceased man in the casket.
He related how he admired the dead man, with whom he worked for years, for his joy, hard work and loyalty as a friend.
“This man saved my life,” the cardinal recalled the man saying, adding that he was a source of encouragement and, when necessary, admonishment.
“One day he pulled me aside and said, ‘You’re going to die of your drinking,” the man said.
Now four years sober, he remembered asking his friend for some advice about the guiding force in his life. The man replied that it was his Catholic faith. “I believe God loves me and has a plan for me,” he counseled.
Wanting what his friend had, he asked him for some assistance in becoming Catholic and the man introduced him to a priest who gave him instructions.
The man who had modeled a better life, and guided him along the way toward it, was Cardinal Dolan’s father, Robert, who died at an early age in 1977.
The cardinal said he wanted to talk to the ManUp participants about Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph of Nazareth, who uttered not a word in Scripture, but was a man of action, who did what the Lord asked him to do, such as when the angel appeared to him in a dream and told him it was God’s will to take Mary as his wife.
“There was the closing line that said, Joseph woke up and did exactly as the angel had asked him,” the cardinal said.
St. Joseph was “a man of action, a man of obedience to God’s will, a man who simply trusted.”
Hector Jordan, a parishioner of St. Anselm’s in the Bronx who has begun studies for the permanent diaconate in the archdiocese, told CNY he was encouraged by the stories of faith he heard at ManUp New York.
“No matter how many times they fall, they get up with their faith,” he said.