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Not your average Joe

8/1/2017

by Lena Pennino-Smith

Long Island’s newest council is named after a young man known for his love of life and love of Christ

Catholic family at a baptism

Joe Reali (1989-2015) is pictured with his family at St. Theresa Church in Trumbull, Conn., following the baptism of his niece (and goddaughter) on the feast of St. Padre Pio, Sept. 23, 2012. Standing far right is his brother, Michael, who is now grand knight of Joseph Mario Reali Council 16261. Photo courtesy of the Reali family

On a Sunday in late 2014, walking into Holy Name of Jesus Church in Woodbury, N.Y., Joseph (Joe) Reali, 25, approached a Knights of Columbus information table with great curiosity. His brother, Michael Reali Jr., wasn’t interested; he and Joe had both been told, “That’s for old guys.”

As Mass began, Joe had a huge smile on his face. Finally, he couldn’t contain himself. “I signed up for the Knights!” he exclaimed. “Why did you do that?’ Michael asked. Still smiling, Joe replied, “I signed you up, too.”

Though Joe had high hopes of taking his First Degree, he never did. He died unexpectedly on Jan. 16, 2015, due to an enlarged heart.

But the legacy of this devout yet fun-loving young man lives on in the newest council on Long Island: Joseph Mario Reali Council 16261. A 2016 Star Council, it has attracted approximately 60 Knights since it was chartered two years ago.

Many of the members knew and loved Joe, whose life continues to inspire their mission. Louis Onglengco, 23, recalled looking up to Joe, who trained him as an altar server and helped him on the football field when they were growing up.

“I joined the Knights of Columbus to help the Church and because Joe Reali was a great role model to me,” Onglengco said. “I wanted to be just like him.”

DISCIPLE OF CHRIST

The font of holy water on the wall of the Reali home and the refrigerator covered with pictures of saints attest that Joe was raised in a pious Catholic family. The youngest of four children, Joe grew up praying the rosary with his parents and siblings every evening. Many nights in their shared bedroom, Michael would bump into his brother kneeling in prayer before an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Lisa and Michael Reali Sr. served their parish as extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist; their daughters Luciana and Toni- Marie as cantor and lector, respectively; and Michael Jr. and Joe as altar servers.

Joe later became a sacristan, trained altar servers and helped with the parish youth group. He also continued to serve at the altar for the Padre Pio Prayer Group, which attracts hundreds and meets monthly at Holy Name of Jesus Church. The Reali family was inspired to start the prayer group because of their personal connection to St. Padre Pio. Joe’s grandmother knew the Capuchin friar well from their shared Italian hometown, Pietrelcina, and other friars from Italy would even visit the family’s home on Long Island.

Joe once wrote about his upbringing, “If anyone had doubts about Catholicism whom I met in my life, these events that took place in my childhood made me feel obligated to stand up for it, because I have no doubt in my mind that God and Jesus Christ do exist and are really present in the Mass.”

Besides being a daily Communicant who loved the rosary, one way that Joe’s love for the faith showed itself was in his habit of bringing others to church. His longtime friend Anthony Pizzo recalled a time that Joe picked him up for Mass in a car filled with football teammates, some of whom were Jewish or Muslim. “Don’t worry about it. This is a good thing,” Joe said.

Joe often took friends to attend Teen Bible Study and afterward treated everyone to ice cream or pizza. On at least one occasion, he stayed up with his friends all night and, before they could go to sleep, he made them come to Mass with him as the sun came up.

“There was nothing hypocritical about Joseph,” recalled Msgr. Richard Bauhoff, pastor of Holy Name of Jesus Church. “It was natural to him, part of his daily living to be a disciple of Christ and live his life according to the Gospel. Joe’s piety and goodness were evident.”

“Joseph was a light in the world,” said his sister Luciana Corsello. “He received God’s love through the sacraments, especially confession and the Holy Eucharist, and radiated it to everyone he met.”

Joe reminded Luciana of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati, a devout, athletic and charismatic young man who lived in Turin, Italy, in the early 20th century. When she first learned about Frassati, Luciana could not resist making a phone call even though she was on a silent retreat. “Joe,” she said, “I found your perfect saint!”

FILLING THE PEWS

While Joe was firmly rooted in his faith, he was also a regular guy who enjoyed hosting parties, going dancing with his friends or blasting music while canning tomatoes with the family. He had a playful side, with a fondness for pranks and fireworks.

With good looks and a quick smile, Joe was popular with girls. He would tell his friends that it was because women want to be respected. “Treat every girl like your mother,” he would say and quickly add, “The Blessed Mother!”

And Joe lived for playing football at Syosset High School and Long Island University Post. A 6-foot-tall wide receiver, he proudly painted crosses under his eyes in black before games.

Joe brought a unique blend of ferocious athleticism and Christian goodwill onto the field. Once, when his team faced the opposition from Hempstead High School, aggression and tensions were high, and Joe volunteered to play defense. After Joe tackled a massive player who had a scholarship to Penn State, he instantly spun around to help the player up. “This big guy gives Joe a hug, and suddenly the whole tone of the game changed; that act of love changed everything,” recalled Michael Reali Sr.

As much as Joe loved football, family came first. In 2009, his mother, Lisa, was diagnosed with colon cancer and could no longer care for her grandson while her daughter Toni- Marie worked. Joe quit football at LIU Post and switched to night classes so that he could look after his young nephew.

According to Toni-Marie, he didn’t treat this as a sacrifice but instead responded with characteristic joy and generosity of spirit. “When I see how others get inspired by him, I realize that the way he made me feel was the way he made others feel,” she said.

Having been diagnosed years earlier with an enlarged heart condition, Joe died unexpectedly but peacefully in the family home at age 25.

He was in the kitchen with his mother, who was making him a tuna sandwich, when suddenly Lisa heard the chairs rattle.

“When I turned, I found him lying serenely on the floor with his eyes closed,” she recalled. Paramedics soon arrived in response to Lisa’s 911 call, but attempts to resuscitate Joe were unsuccessful.

Michael Sr. remembered one day when he suggested to Joe that their church should be renovated with fewer pews because “the pews are never filled.” It was one of the only times that Joe appeared angry with him.

“He said, ‘Dad, one day you will see this church filled.’” Michael recalled. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I’d like to see that.’”

With tears in his eyes, Michael recounted that during Joe’s wake at the church and later at his funeral Mass, Holy Name of Jesus Church was overflowing with people whose lives his son had touched.

Altogether, some 3,000 people gathered, and many shared stories about how Joe had made them feel loved, helped them in a time of need, brought them to church or otherwise changed their lives for the better. One woman, for example, had driven hours from Pennsylvania to pay her respects, since Joe was responsible for talking her son, who had run away, into returning home.

Bishop William F. Murphy, then-head of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, was present and compared Joe to St. Stanisław Kostka and St. Aloysius Gonzaga, two saints who died young but had a fervent devotion to the Eucharist and the Blessed Mother.

Young Knights of Columbus

Three of Joe Reali’s cousins — (left to right) Matthew Reali, Michaelangelo Reali and John Reali — are among the newest members of Joseph Mario Reali Council 16261 in Woodbury, N.Y. Photo by Branden J. Stanley/Spirit Juice Studios

A WARRIOR’S HEART

More than two years after Joe’s death, his parents admit they are still mourning. “It’s never going to be easy,” Lisa said.

Michael Sr. said, “It’s the little things that set you off — finding rosary beads in his work clothes or a cross in the truck he used to drive, or holy pictures all over the place.”

Joe has been posthumously honored in many ways. For example, he received the Model of Faith Award at LIU Post’s Interfaith Center and is remembered in an Eagle Scout memorial garden at Holy Name of Jesus Church.

It may seem unusual to name a Knights of Columbus council after a young man who was not even officially a member, since councils on Long Island are typically named after Our Lady or other saints. But when Council 16261 was formed in July 2015, Joe’s was the only name considered.

“The first thing we talked about was what we wanted the name of the council to be — and the first words on everyone’s lips was ‘Joseph Mario Reali,’” said Past Grand Knight Bill Bonneville. “So many Knights knew about his devotion to our church, to Holy Name of Jesus, as well as his family’s devotion to the parish. It was significant to us that we move forward in his name.”

In previous years, Holy Name of Jesus — a small parish — could not garner enough interest to start a council of its own. Following Joe’s death, however, parishioners were inspired when they heard that he had intended to join the Order. This continues to give the council momentum to attract members and raise money for charitable causes.

In honor of Joe’s passion for bringing people — especially young people — to church, Council 16261 has already raised more than $15,000 toward the renovation and beautification of the church entranceway. Msgr. Bauhoff, who serves as the council’s chaplain, said they want the church to convey the same spirit of welcoming that Joe did.

According to Anthony Pizzo, who is now a member of Council 16261, naming a Knights of Columbus council after his friend is a perfect tribute. “Joe had an inner desire to be a warrior, to fight for what he believed in,” Pizzo said. “Combine that with his love for his faith, and the idea of the Knights of Columbus — he was totally sold on it.”

For a short time, Joe had entered seminary, and his seminary essay included a favorite quote by football legend Vince Lombardi, who was himself a member of the Knights: “I firmly believe that any man’s finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious.”

In many ways, this quote would come to define Joe’s life.

Michael Sr. is now in charge of recruitment for Council 16261 and works to bring people back to church to fill those pews. And Michael Jr., who was reluctant to join the Knights two years ago, now serves the council as grand knight. He smiled, knowing that his brother somehow led him to the role.

“He was always bringing people to church, carloads of kids,” Michael Jr. said. “That is the main purpose of the Knights — to grow the Catholic Church. So I feel like Joe is still with us, encouraging us in what we do.


LENA PENNINO-SMITH writes from West Babylon, N.Y.