Buffalo, N.Y., Feb 9, 2013 (CNA) - Ask “Baby” Joe Mesi how such a devout Catholic could step into a boxing ring to punch another guy for twelve rounds and his response begins with a laugh and an anecdote.
The fact that his unbeaten pro career ended prematurely is no laughing matter, but the lessons he learned along the way and ability to carry his faith along the way are priceless victories.
A 1996 U.S. Olympic alternate, “Baby Joe” – as Mesi was known in the ring – went on to a professional journey from 1997-2007 that saw him finish with an amazing 36-0 won-lost record, with 29 of those victories coming by knockout. The former number one heavyweight contender in the world was glistening in his sport’s spotlight.
“There were several,” he says when asked about his proudest moment in boxing. “I got to fight in Madison Square Garden. I got to fight in Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. I got to fight in my hometown (Buffalo, New York), on HBO. Another was being chosen to be an Olympic torchbearer, the last one, lighting the flame right before the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve, prior to the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.”
Now 40 years old, his career was cut short by something that caused him to question his faith, which had been as solid as his punches.
“After my head injury in 2004 I wondered why God – when my next fight would be a title shot – would do this… it would sometimes lead me to fall off my path. But He had a bigger and better plan and I’m living it right now.”
Back then the injury, of course, led Mesi to many neurosurgeons. And today? Baby Joe is still visiting those same specialists, but now it’s in his role with St. Jude, working to sell medical devices to those doctors.
It might have been a surprise that Baby Joe went into a boxing career, seeing as how he was picked on as a kid. Nowadays that behavior has an all too common name, and Mesi, as a result, has started a foundation called Champs Against Bullying to combat it.
“As a former athlete and former boxer I thought it’d be good to voice my thoughts on this, especially since I was bullied as a kid. I wasn’t real big and when my big brother Thomas wasn’t there, I experienced it,” Mesi explains. “So I know how people feel and felt that my story and how I overcame it would be heard. I even want to talk to parents about when their child is being bullied. We had a couple suicides in Western New York last year by kids who were being bullied. Now there’s even online bullying. Kids’ grades are slipping and they are emotionally damaged.”
His good works don’t end there. There is also the Baby Joe Mesi Fight for Organ Donors, “to create awareness for the importance of organ donation and raise money and help support hospitals that do transplant procedures,” he says. “My cousin, Genelle Shanor, had kidney failure and a couple transplants and we were real close – like a sister – and she lost her battle at the height of my popularity, which provided the opportunity to raise awareness and we’ve made a lot of impact with the foundation… (Society is) so into recycling – paper, glass, etc. – but we don’t do enough about re-using our organs. So many lives can be improved and saved.”
His generous spirit obviously comes from his Catholic faith, the early roots of which he reflects on. “I always had a special relationship with God. To this day I still have my holy box. When I was young I took a shoe box from my father and started filling it with, say, a rosary or a prayer card and things like that, and to this day it’s in my nightstand… I think that comes from my background, my upbringing, watching my parents be good people and be good to others. I rarely if ever pray for myself. I’m too blessed to pray for myself.”
There is one exception to that rule, and it came during his boxing career.
“The one time I would pray for myself was to be safe, for me and my opponent both, and for neither of us to get hurt. I’m friends with my competitors and still talk to them, and in each one of my fights – 85 amateur and 36 pro fights – I put a scapular in my boots and socks and would touch them before each match… when I was getting introduced, as a way to keep God with me before, during, and after the fight and in training and not wanting anyone to get hurt.”
So then as for going in the squared circle to punch someone for possibly as many as twelve rounds? “I often struggled with that. People ask me, for such a nice guy, where did you get this anger? But in looking at boxers, this is just a talent God gave them and they’re all family men and it doesn’t make us evil people. We’d help each other up off the mat and hug each other and learn about each other. It’s a wonderful sport. It’s challenging to differentiate a godly man with a boxer. You’d have to be in my shoes to understand. I’ve at times never felt closer to God than because of boxing.”
Mesi appeared headed to transition from boxing into politics, running for a New York State Senate seat in 2008, but fell just short.
“When I lost I was miserably depressed for months. I got married a couple days after the loss yet wasn’t myself. Then God handed me this job (with St. Jude) months later and I just love it. Maybe He wanted me to see, this is not for you. He had another plan for me.”
Now more than four years since he married Michelle, there is a new “Baby Joe” Mesi in the form of the couple’s six month old son. He is a little brother to Hope and Juliet. The three will no doubt hear first-hand the message that the former heavyweight wants the junior high and high school student-athletes of today to hear.
“Keep your faith,” Mesi urges. “Some may not want to be so public with it and that’s fine too at that age, but keep a place for it.
“The other message is, never give up. I think back to my boxing career. I wasn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest, but I worked hard and that’s why I was as successful as I was. Don’t be afraid of talent. I’d rather go up against – in sales, boxing or anything – talent than hard work. Everyone I boxed was more experienced than me, stronger and faster, but I worked harder because I had to. Always work hard. You don’t have to be the best, just give your best. If you give your absolute best you’ll be surprised how far you go.”
Posted with permission from the Catholic Sports Association, an organization dedicated to highlighting Catholic sports professionals and enriching junior high and high school student-athletes with Catholic sports articles, conferences, a Web series, and other programs.
Rome, Italy, Feb 9, 2013 (CNA/EWTN News) -
Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai is preparing to celebrate the Chinese New Year in Rome, and as he takes stock of the Church in his native land he sees many reasons for hope.
“The Catholic communities in China also give me hope,” Archbishop Hon Tai Fai told CNA in a Feb. 7 interview as he looked ahead to the New Year.
“I noticed that some communities have a good sense of solidarity. Helping other people and working to do good and keep the harmony of the society and family.
“I can see the number of Catholics is growing. People are accepting the teachings of Christ and his Gospel and are willing to live it.
“So the vitality of the Church there gives me hope as well. And of course, personally, I believe in God who is the Lord of history and He will guide us,” the archbishop stated.
He is also hopeful because he believes that the Chinese government is trying to work for the good of the people and take their rights into consideration.
“But the government has a huge problem of how to satisfy the matter, as I called it, the problem of corruption,” the archbishop explained, adding that corruption can lead to rights being ignored.
“For me,” he said, “religious freedom is the most fundamental side of human rights because if one cannot have the choice for his or her own belief in that particular country then it would be very difficult for him or her to live. “
While he believes that religious freedom has improved significantly for common people over the last 50 years, Archbishop Hon Tai Fai says “freedom is tightened and restricted for Church leaders.”
“Unfortunately, this includes the selection of these leaders and their appointments. For the Catholic Church what we need is to be in communion with the Holy Father and regrettably full communion with the Holy Father is restricted,” he stated.
But in spite of the restrictions the Church is growing in China. Archbishop Hon Tai Fai thinks that there are around 12 million Catholics in the country but that the number is hard to pin down because many people don’t want to be registered.
On Feb. 10, Chinese people around the globe will celebrate the beginning of their New Year. The enormous number of people who flood out of cities to visit and feast with their families has caused some people to call the holiday travel the largest mass migration in the world.
“The Chinese New Year is a big tradition of feasts. We sometimes call it the feast of spring, though it is more winter,” Archbishop Hon Tai Fai explained.
People “stay together to feast with their family for peace and harmony. It is time also to give thanks and remember our ancestors.”
Although he is in Rome, the archbishop will celebrate the Chinese New Year by inviting “all the Chinese students, brothers, sisters and priests to come here to the college.”
The feast, which is in its third year, brings just under 200 people for Mass and dinner at the college, followed by watching TV programs from China at a movie theater.
Lander, Wyo., Feb 9, 2013 (CNA) -
A professor at Wyoming Catholic College reflected on Pope Benedict's recent address to the Pontifical Council for Culture, saying it showed his desire that we “re-connect with our Catholic heritage.”
“Young people are not being properly formed in a way that connects them with the larger history, tradition, and identity from which they've come,” Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, a professor of theology and philosophy at Wyoming Catholic College told CNA Feb. 8.
“So, they're kind of set free into a floating void, where as Pope Benedict puts it, if they do live their faith at all, they live it in a privatistic and emotional way.”
The pontiff's Feb. 7 address to the Council's plenary assembly stressed the challenges facing young people, while also noting the hope placed in them by the Church.
“The Church has confidence in the young” and needs their lively participation, he insisted, while also underscoring the threat of youth being pushed to the margins of society by unemployment and the crisis in education.
Kwasniewski said the “language here of a cultural landscape that's increasingly fragmented and in continuous rapid evolution and...the educational emergency” was the most striking feature of the Pope's address.
“One of the main themes of his whole pontificate has been to urge people to rediscover, recover, and re-connect with our Catholic heritage, tradition, and identity, in every respect. As regards liturgy especially, but also as regards theology, catechesis, architecture, our sacred music...everything that makes us distinctively Catholic, and that come from our 2000 year inheritance.”
“And he sees this as not just a nice thing, like an ornament or a decoration, but as really, vitally important for human identity.”
Aware of the “problematic situations” facing youth, the Pope nevertheless reaffirmed “that the Church looks to their condition and their cultures as essential and inescapable” for its ministry.
He expressed concern over trends of “spectacularization of private life and a narcissistic selfishness,” but also said the church “hopes in young people and in their energy. She needs their vitality in order to continue living the mission entrusted to her by Christ with renewed enthusiasm.”
Kwasniewski said the vitality of youth is drawn by “a sort of magnetism” of the traditional Roman rite, which has “an inherent dignity, beauty, and power.”
Youth, he said, “will be attracted to anything beautiful, and that's a revolt against the meaningless utilitarianism of our times, where everything is stripped of its personal meaning.”
The professor sees hope in young people who are sickened by the utilitarianism of modern culture, yet “wouldn't really be able to put their finger on the problem, which is that they've been reduced to ciphers, numbers, workers.”
Pope Benedict told the Pontifical Council members that he hopes their discussions will contribute to “the Church's work in the lives of young people, which is a complex and articulated reality” that can no longer be understood using old paradigms.
Kwasniewski added, “I think what Pope Benedict is saying is absolutely, and obviously true. But what I've seen is that when you actually implement the proposals and remedies of Pope Benedict, it works extremely well.”
“The youth do love it, they thrive, it gives them a sense of belonging, and meaning and direction, which is exactly what the Pope says is needed.”
He echoed Pope Benedict's call to overcome the educational crisis through a vibrant Catholicism.
“To reach the youth, you have to be radically, visibly, strikingly, and beautifully Catholic, because they need something different from the secular culture that is not answering their deepest needs.”