By David Powell
St. Don Bosco, whose feast we celebrate Jan. 31, was known for witnessing to the love of Christ for disadvantaged youth as he did down-to-earth evangelizing among Italian street kids in the mid-1800s. Besides being the founder of the Salesian order, he is well-known internationally as the classic model for youth ministers.
From 1992 to 2002, St. Joseph’s parish, Astoria, had its own Don Bosco in the person of Patrick J. Raspante, known to all simply as “Rick.” On Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, I was privileged to be at a memorial Mass at St. Joseph’s for Rick, who had passed away two months before in Glen Falls, N.Y., from kidney failure.
Even though most of the 150 parishioners at the Mass had not seen Rick since his departure due to his illness, I could sense immediately the atmosphere of warmth and admiration for this man especially during Msgr. George Ryan’s half-hour homily. We were all spellbound and spent a few minutes in rapt silence as we relived our own memories of Rick.
I thought back to the fall of 1991 in St. Thomas Aquinas, Flatlands, where I had just become parish director of religious education. My task was to work mainly with teachers and other adults because the children’s program was so well run by Father George Merolla, secretary Jean Conte and two lay volunteers, one of whom I heard was a local deli butcher named Rick Raspante. Father Merolla was so impressed by him that on my first day he gave me a paper that Rick had written about the program and said pointedly “this guy should be in full-time church work – see what you can do.”
One day – as if the Holy Spirit whispered in my ear “youth ministry” – Rick was enthused about the possibility of working in youth ministry. Fortunately, Msgr. Ryan needed someone at St. Joseph’s. Msgr. Ryan pointed out to me that Rick lived the Beatitudes more than anyone he had ever met. And this was in the midst of terrible suffering, not just his health problems, but things like his car being totalled on the Belt Parkway and his house being burned down as he helped his wife and three young children escape unharmed. Even when he had to retire to Glen Falls to be close to a state-of-the-art dialysis center, his ministry continued with dialysis patients. Upon his passing, the community newspaper mentioned that somehow over a 10-year period Rick raised over $40,000 for the center.
My wife, who got Rick to give a day of recollection to Confirmation students at St. Matthias parish, commented: “Rick was a forthright down- to-earth man whose love for God was apparent in everything he did and said. When he spoke with the Confirmation students, the kids listened intently to everything he said. He spoke from the heart directly to their hearts. His theology came from a life devoted to Christ. He inspired them to believe that they too could love God as he did.”
As the Church continues to recover from the sex abuse scandal, it is important that we celebrate our modern-day Don Boscos to encourage priests, nuns and laypeople to engage in youth ministry. It would be a fitting memorial to Patrick J. Raspante, youth minister par excellence.