Joe Smith was “a proud atheist.” His friend, Jackie Piano, was a “lukewarm Catholic.”
They hope their story of discovering and rediscovering Jesus in the Mass, respectively, serves as a catalyst in the archdiocese’s evangelization efforts.
“I’m just praying that it means something to really Catholic people,” Smith told the Catholic Herald after the video in which they tell their stories premiered at “Return to the Upper Room,” Sunday, June 14, at the Cousins Center.
Titled “Mass: The Heart of the Matter,” the nine-minute video received an enthusiastic response from the 325 people participating in the event marking the first anniversary of the Archdiocesan Synod. When the two were introduced to the gathering, they received a standing ovation.
Produced by Margie Mandli of GEM Communications and Consulting, the video has a “Chariots of Fire” (Academy Award for Best Picture, 1982) look and sound to it, due to the cinematography and editing of Matt Houchin and creative direction of Paula West, as Smith and Piano individually relate their stories. Each is verbally and visually animated – animation matched with music that reflects the intensity of their stories – in relating how he or she was drawn to the Mass.
Smith told how difficult his life was – he was divorced in December 2012, his mother died the next month, and he quit his job in March. “I ran away from home … myself. I was in complete denial with what I had done to my own life,” he said.
After talking about how she had “used God” so she could be married in the cathedral and have her daughter baptized, Piano said, “I wasn’t fed because I didn’t know I was hungry; I took what I could and lived my life.”
Smith related how on Ash Wednesday 2014, for no reason that he could explain, he was drawn to attending Mass. He called Piano and asked if she was going; she said she wasn’t. He still planned to attend.
Piano told how the previous summer, after her husband became seriously ill, she began attending Sunday Mass again.
“I didn’t get it. I wasn’t getting anything because I wasn’t giving anything,” she said. “I was once again just taking.” Within seconds of the call from Smith, Piano called him back and agreed to go to Mass with him.
“I was not going to let my atheist friend ‘out church’ me,” she said. “That was not going to happen!” What they experienced during that Mass changed their lives.
“Everything, I mean everything, changed,” Piano said in the video. “That’s Jesus. There’s power – there’s power in his name, there’s power in his presence.”
Smith said he was so filled with emotions that as they, with ashes still on their foreheads, ate at Benji’s Deli, he exclaimed, “‘I love Jesus!’ That’s not of my own volition.” During the final three minutes of the video, each spoke of Mass’s impact.
“The Mass isn’t just somewhere to go for an hour; the Mass isn’t something you’re obligated to do because you’re Catholic. The Mass is something you run to,” Piano said about placing the Mass at the center of evangelization. “If somebody is in your church, they’re there for a reason,” Smith said. “They might be very lonely. I was. They’re looking for a new home. If you see somebody you never saw before just say, ‘Hi. Happy to see you.’ Evangelization starts with me, with you as a person – one person at a time reaching out….”
“You would think you’d have to sell tickets to get into a Catholic Church,” Piano said. “We have Jesus Christ and I struggle sometimes because I wonder, ‘Why are the churches empty?’ Then I look back a year and look at myself.”
Becoming even more animated, and with the soundtrack in crescendo, she continues, “Evangelization can only occur and be successful when the core is changed. I just want everyone to be this happy. And when he’s (Jesus) in you, and it’s going to come out and joy, joy, joy, joy!”
The audience learned that Smith and Piano entered the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults together at St. Robert Parish, Shorewood, where both are members. Smith was baptized, confirmed and received the Eucharist for the first time during this year’s Easter Vigil, while Piano was confirmed.
Also debuting at “Upper Room” was a six-minute video titled “A New Mission for a Missionary People”.
A fast-moving production, comprised of segments lasting no more than 15 seconds each and backed by an upbeat soundtrack, “New Mission” repeatedly posts the message stated in a variety of ways by those featured: “Proclaim Christ and make disciples through the sacramental life of the church.”
Those talking about their faith, the mission to which each has been called, and the importance of sacraments in their lives are Nduta Kmao, a married mother of three children; Michael VanDusen, a sales representative; Macarena Correa, a counselor for Milwaukee Public Schools; Ezinne Ejiofor, a student at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee; Theresa Liu, married for 46 years to John; Michael and Sara Larson, married 13 years and the parents of two boys; and Fr. John Burns, pastor, St. Mary Parish, Menomonee Falls.