At one time, Father Richard Pagano believed lasting happiness was to be found playing basketball. The point guard, who played hoops at a New Jersey community college, thought running down the court, escaping defenders and maneuvering past a much taller center for a finger-roll basket was the greatest thrill in life.
Many knee injuries later, Father Pagano started to see things differently. He gave up his desire for worldly glory and replaced it with one for God’s glory. After his dramatic conversion, he discerned a call to the priesthood and entered St. Vincent de Paul Regional Seminary in Boynton Beach, Fla., in 2008. He was ordained on May 18, 2013, at the historic Cathedral-Basilica of St. Augustine.
While Father Pagano’s enthusiasm has carried over from his days on the hardwood floor, it’s now being channeled toward a radically different end.
The 31-year-old Diocese of St. Augustine priest recently spoke of his journey from the basketball court to the sanctuary with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
Did you grow up in a devout family?
I came from a difficult family situation. My parents divorced when I was 2, so my mother, sister and I moved in with my mother’s parents in upstate New York. My uncle and aunt (my mother’s siblings) lived with us as well, since they were 20 and 18 at the time. Some of my greatest childhood memories were of church and family. We would regularly go to the seemingly huge parish of St. Catharine of Alexandria in Blauvelt, N.Y. We were going to “God’s house,” as my mother described it, and following that, we would have big family gatherings at my grandparents’ house. Their house was a Grand Central Station of sorts: lots of people, lots of activity and celebration. I loved that.
Tell us how you first got involved in basketball.
I remember shooting hoops at the age of 5 with my uncle on a rim that hung from the back of my grandparents’ garage door. Those are my first memories of a basketball, and I look back with gratitude on them.
As I got a little older, I played all kinds of sports, especially the team and contact ones. I would play football with no pads, and an all-out, very aggressive version of basketball. I slowly became more disciplined, though. I would spend hours dribbling around the driveway and playing pick-up games in the neighborhood. As a guard, I developed a reliable jump shot, then a keen floor vision, then an ability to penetrate defenses.
Things were going great with basketball in high school, but I was taken in with the partying that is all too common for young people. I made the varsity basketball team as a junior, but was cut halfway through the season because of my off-court behavior at a tournament in Kentucky. The coach said my actions were inconsistent with the school’s expectations of a varsity player, and he was right.
Was that a wake-up call for you?
Unfortunately, being cut didn’t really motivate me to improve my behavior. I was still a wild young man without a serious purpose in life. The highest purpose I could find was in basketball, so I rededicated myself to the sport at Bergen County Community College in Paramus, N.J. Things were going very well, but by that time I had been playing in pain for four years on a bad leg. I was told it was just a sprain, but never had an MRI, so all that time I was basically tearing up the cartilage in my knee.
Well, my knee finally gave out completely, and my basketball career seemed finished. I then moved back to Palm Coast, Fla., and, despite the recommendation of my doctor to stay off the court after knee surgery, I was suckered into playing pick-up basketball. Then my other knee gave out, and my basketball career really was finished completely. The most pathetic part of the scene, though, was that my “friends” who coaxed me into playing that day were all laughing as I was writhing in pain on the ground. They really got a kick out of my injury.
So when did you start to see that your life had a purpose beyond basketball?
I was in the hospital rehabbing my second knee surgery, and no one came to visit. My “friends” were amused at my predicament, and, because of my wild ways, my family didn’t want to have anything to do with me. I effectively pushed everyone I loved away [because of] my lifestyle. I was buried in darkness and lies, isolated in my sin. I was empty and needed a Savior. It was in that time of great need that I prayed with humility for the first time in my life.
Before then, I would occasionally ask God for things, but there was no desire to do God’s will; it was all about my own selfish interests. Now that I needed physical, emotional and spiritual healing — and then a true purpose and direction in life — I laid bare my soul and asked what countless souls have asked through the centuries: “Jesus, I am doing everything wrong. I need your help.”
The very next day, I saw a Bible on my table. I’m not sure how it got there, since I hadn’t seen it before, but I started reading it, especially Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. Those books really spoke to my heart, to my need for redemption and purpose. The serenity prayer was printed in the Bible, so I started praying that every day. There was also a Seven Sorrows prayer card inserted in the Bible, so I began a devotion to Our Sorrowful Mother. That blossomed into a daily Rosary; and Our Blessed Mother’s concern and guidance brought about a new reality: My life was finally making sense. I went to confession and Sunday Mass and, eventually, made weekday Mass and Eucharistic adoration regular practices. Step by step, I was becoming more immersed in God’s grace, and I became freer and freer to do God’s will. I saw more clearly that my worldly desires were empty and futile and that God’s way was the only way that would bring me true happiness.
I’ve always been comfortable talking to groups of people, so I wasn’t shy about sharing my newfound faith. I would preach to fellow students at the Daytona Beach Community College and hand out Bibles to them. My friends and family were suspicious of my actions, since they were so used to me being a wild guy. They couldn’t believe that I had really been transformed by God’s grace. I was so on fire with the faith that I could not put down the Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the works of my new best friend: Pope John Paul II. I fell in love with John Paul II’s life and ministry.
At one point, I was asked, along with my fellow students, to make a presentation on a world leader from recent or distant history. Well, of course, I chose JPII. When I proposed my topic, my teacher said I could not present on him. I asked why, because others were doing presentations on religious leaders. She would not even entertain my question, but I went ahead and presented on JPII. Up until then, I had an A in the class; but the final project on JPII brought me down to a B. That is the grade I am most proud of in my entire academic formation!
How did you discern a call to the priesthood?
Providentially, my pastor at Santa Maria del Mar in Flagler Beach, Fla., Father John Tetlow, was also the diocesan vocations director, so he helped me to discern God’s call. I was blessed to see that God was calling me, not out of my own worthiness, but out of my unworthiness. The fact that the priesthood was an unmerited, gratuitous gift was made perfectly clear, and it remains that way for me today.
Everything I had been searching for is now present to me. I have deep meaning and purpose to my life that I love to share with others on a daily basis. Since each day is different, there are so many adventures in the life of a diocesan priest. I get to be with my spiritual children at the most important moments of their lives: baptisms, weddings, funerals and many places in between. Celibate intimacy brings great and lasting joy, since joy is not dependent upon physical pleasure. Joy is a state of soul that comes when self is left behind and the service of neighbor in the love of God is embraced.
Does your past help you in your present ministry?
While I wouldn’t recommend worldliness to anyone, I did learn things from my past experiences that help me today. When I went to a maximum-security prison to preach, I was able to get the attention of inmates by reciting lyrics of certain rappers they admired. They couldn’t believe I knew what was so familiar to them. After I got their attention, I was able to preach to them the saving truth of the Gospel from a perspective that the light always shines most clearly in the darkness.
What advice would you give to young basketball players and young athletes in general?
I would say: Never invest your time and effort into something for the purpose of attaining human glory. Human glory is fleeting, so seeking after it is a life committed to “chasing after wind.” If glory comes after the investment of your life in Christ, that’s fine, but always remember it is his glory that is to be revered. Refer your praise back to God, who is the author of all human gifts and who shares his glory with us. You’ll never find fulfillment in a game or another worldly pursuit, but only in the glory of God.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.