Father Joe Palermo, himself a former attorney, said light-heartedly that lawyer jokes would not be allowed at the Men’s Morning of Spirituality
March 18 at St. Anthony of Padua Church in New Orleans.
The 300 men who heard the faith reflections of attorney Ralph Capitelli and U.S. District Judge Jay Zainey got the message: everyone, especially lawyers and judges who hold the fates of individuals in their hands, can do great things for God.
The theme for the day w a s “ As God is My Witness,” and the two members of the legal profession wove into their presentations personal stories of how God used Scripture, the sacraments and other people, especially their family members, to deepen their Catholic faith.
“What needs more work – your golf game or your spirituality?” asked Capitelli, a former Orleans Parish assistant district attorney who later began a career as a defense attorney.
Capitelli, who has been married for 45 years to his wife Linda, grew up in Brooklyn. He attended Catholic school, was an altar server and sold The Tablet, the Brooklyn diocese’s official newspaper, at each of St. Brigid’s nine Sunday Masses.
One week after he was accepted into a Catholic high school, his father learned that he was being transferred to New Orleans.
“I still remember the airport scene with my grandmother and my aunts and great aunts, handkerchiefs in one hand and rosary beads in the other, waving us goodbye like we were going to the end of the world,” Capitelli said.
He arrived in New Orleans in 1961, attended Cor Jesu High School (which would become Brother Martin), attended college and law school and then got married in 1972.
Wife turned to prayer
Capitelli managed to get a job as an assistant DA under Jim Garrison, but after a rough day in court in which he was dressed down by his supervisor, Capitelli said he went home and told Linda he was not cut out for the job.
“Linda put her arm around me and said, ‘Let’s say a prayer together,’” Capitelli recalled. “She told me, ‘The Lord has given you the ability to do this.’ At that time, prayer was not something that was a big part of my life.”
Capitelli learned so quickly that he was one of the few attorneys retained on the staff of incoming district attorney Harry Connick. Capitelli said he branched out into private practice in 1980, which is when his work life began consuming him.
In March 1983, he was representing seven New Orleans police officers in a high-profile case that had been moved to Dallas for trial. The trial lasted more than a month, and Capitelli could not even get home on the weekends.
“One evening, while preparing for the next day’s witnesses, a police officer who had just flown in that evening congratulated me on the ‘good news,’” Capitelli said. I asked him, ‘What good news?’ He said, ‘Your wife is going to have another baby.”
Capitelli said he was shocked. “How could Linda tell other people before telling me?” he said.
When Capitelli called home, Linda broke down in tears and said she had been waiting for him to come home so she could tell him the news face-to-face. As it turned out, the police officer’s wife had the same doctor as Linda – “this was long before the days of HIPPA,” Capitelli said – which is how the news got out.
“I recall the next day stopping at a small chapel to pray for the verdict I wanted,” Capitelli said. “But I ended up praying that the Lord would help me see those things that are most important in my life.”
Capitelli said after his father’s death, his mother sank into depression, and Linda brought her on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. She died 10 years later, holding a statue of the Blessed Mother that she had brought back from Medjugorje.
He was transformed
Capitelli went to Medjugorje for the first time in 1988, and he returned home committed to attending daily Mass and joining a men’s prayer group. He became a lector and extraordinary minister of holy Communion, and he and Linda began preparing engaged couples for marriage.
In a similar way, Zainey was touched by Medjugorje. His wife Joy first went there in 1986 “to ask the Blessed Mother if we should have a third child,” Zainey said, smiling. “Of course, friends asked her, ‘What did you expect the Blessed Mother to say – no?’”
In 1988, they did have a third child, and they named him Andrew after St. Andrew the Apostle, “sort of the guy behind the scenes who brought St. Peter to Christ.”
When Andrew was 18 months old, he was diagnosed with a rare chromosomal abnormality that at the time had only 24 known cases in the world.
“I would lie to you if I said we didn’t have our challenges,” Zainey said. “Andrew turned 29 a couple of weeks ago – on March 7 – and he still is not toilet trained nor does he speak.”
The struggles the Zaineys had in caring for Andrew seemed to be exacerbated even by the church. Zainey calls them “speed bumps” now, but they were distressing. One priest declined the invitation to have Andrew and other special needs children take religious education classes because he didn’t want “the liability.”
The Zaineys quickly changed parishes.
“One Sunday – pro-life Sunday – tears welled up in Joy’s eyes while the priest spoke about protecting and caring for the unborn,” Zainey said. “We talked about it after Mass. We, like so many parents of children with special needs, felt that the church wanted us to bring all children into the world, but after a child was brought into the world ‘less than normal,’ we were on our own.”
God’s Special Children
Zainey said his wife’s perseverance and the help of caring priests allowed them to start a group called God’s Special Children, which for the last 14 years has celebrated Mass on the first Sunday of the month at St. Francis Xavier Church in Metairie.
Hundreds of worshipers attend each month. The Mass is celebrated by Fathers Mike Mitchell, Frank Candalisa and Raymond Igbogidi, with the blessings of Msgr. Andrew Taormina and Archbishop Gregory Aymond.
Zainey praised the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Schools for its efforts to increase services for children with special needs. He said the Office of Religious Education has done wonderful things to ensure that children with special needs receive the sacraments.
“The church has come a long way in strongly advocating the respect for the lives of all children,” Zainey said. “Not only the unborn, but also children with special needs who we bring into this world. The ‘speed bumps’ were not made out of intentional unkindness or maliciousness – rather as a result of a lack of education and understanding.”
He likened God’s providence to the helicopters that rescued people off rooftops after Katrina.
“Speed bumps are a part of life, but perseverance and accepting help from God’s messengers – the helicopters – will always help us overcome those speed bumps,” he said. “I hope that each of us commits today to be a helicopter that God sends for each other.”
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.