The greatest Jesuit I've ever known: Father Tony Azzarto, SJ
NOTE: I wrote this piece in 2007. And yet, so little about Tony has changed. I decided to 'republish' it in light of the new pope, Francis, being a Jesuit priest.
The Canessa Commentary By Kevin Canessa Jr.
If he knew I were writing this column, the Rev. Tony Azzarto, S.J., of St. Peter’s Prep, would politely say something like: “What would you be thinking there. There’s no need for this.” With his great Brooklyn accent, the emphasis would be on the word “for.” Anyone who knows Tony would realize this.
Of course, he’s been like that his entire life. A man who has given of himself to generations of students at St. Peter’s Prep and to many thousands of Nigerians in West Africa rarely realizes just how much impact he’s had on the lives of so many people. Instead, he’ll tell you it’s not what he does that has an impact on people, it’s the reaction of the people to his guidance that really creates the impact.
But the truth of the matter is that Tony Azzarto really has had that impact on so many — and he embodies was a member of the Society of Jesus should be in every sense of the word. He is the greatest living example of a Man for Others, something a wonderful Jesuit priest, Father Pedro Arrupe, called all associated with the Jesuits to be. If there were a book written in the modern world simply on examples of being “Men for Others,” there isn’t a Jesuit more deserving of having his photo on the front cover than Tony Azzarto.
Tony’s story is a very simple one. As a boy, he attended Brooklyn Prep, a school that closed its doors in the ‘70s, and a school that was home to many a recognizable name, including Curtis Sliwa, founder of The Guardian Angels. And, like many boys who attended Brooklyn Prep way back when, Tony went into the Jesuits not too long after his high school days were over.
While preparing to become a Jesuit Father, he studied philosophy and theology, and had a few years as a scholastic at St. Peter’s Prep in the late 1960s — he taught religion back then.
He then came back to St. Peter’s Prep, and it likely wasn’t until 1985, immediately following his first big stint of five years in Nigeria, that he had his greatest impact on the St. Peter’s Prep family.
When he came back, he took over the Emmaus Retreat Program which, unbelievably, turns 30 this year. For 20-some-odd years, Tony was the leader of Emmaus, and can be recalled fondly by any Prep alumnus who ever made the retreat.
And if you want to talk about sports — my goodness was and is he ever a big sports fan. Professionally, he was a huge fan of the Dodgers, perhaps because of his strong Brooklyn roots. I can still recall that even though I was a fan of the New York Mets, I was very happy for Tony when the team from L.A. beat the Mets in the 1988 National League Championship Series — and then went on to win the World Series against the heavily favored Oakland A’s. Tony is the kind of guy who can really get you to love your enemy — whether a sports team, a rival, whatever. His aura of peacefulness transcended any kind of negativity — and he did a great job of it in 1988 (and heck, every other year he was part of the faculty at St. Peter’s Prep).
On a personal note, Tony was for me a mentor — and was the single-greatest reason I considered entering the Jesuits in the early 2000s. I had always wanted to be a priest, and having someone like Tony as a mentor made it all the more natural that it would be the Jesuits for me — or nothing at all. Though I didn’t ultimately wind up entering the Jesuits, a decision I still question from time to time, Tony continued to mentor me well beyond my years (1988-1992) at St. Peter’s Prep.
When I was a teacher at St. Anthony High School in Jersey City, he allowed me to “borrow” the Emmaus model for the students there. Then, at Oratory Prep later, the same thing happened, and the results were incredible. Our Emmaus program was as successful as it was at St. Peter’s, and without Tony, none of it would have been possible.
So many times, when we’d have a retreat, Tony would make his way up to Mount Arlington to the retreat house to say Mass. Never would he accept a penny for saying the Mass, a custom most diocesan priests are used to. He would say, on a regular basis, “As long as you have a cookie or two for me, and maybe a slice of pizza, I would love to be there for you for Mass.”
And there he was, time and time again, on his own weekend — doing what he loved so much — for free.
Though he may not realize it, hundreds of kids from St. Anthony’s and Oratory Prep each had an opportunity to experience Emmaus because of Tony. Again, he’d say it was The Holy Spirit that allowed the kids to have such great times — but I would always disagree, and tell him that it was he who made much of that joy possible, a joy that for many kids, would not otherwise have happened.
And you see, that’s what he’s all about, is Tony Azzarto. He never drove a fancy car; in fact, on two occasions, when he came to say Mass for us, he came in a huge yellow St. Peter’s Prep school bus. Talk about simplicity. He never much boasted about being able to wear a Roman Collar. Instead, he often wore regular clothing, an outward sign of his humble nature and vow of poverty. He also showed so many of us that, unlike many other priests, he firmly believed he was no better or worse a person than the average layman. He believed in that so much so that he would always invite kids to surround him at the altar when he’d say Mass, and bless the bread and wine as it became the Body and Blood of Christ.
He never as much as asked for a thank you for anything he ever did for me, or for anyone else for that matter. He was only doing the work of Jesus, he’d say. Prayer and pizza were thanks enough.
But really, if you want to talk about a man who is deserving of all the praise and accolades in the world, it’s Tony Azzarto, because he’s done so much for so many that it’s impossible to list even a handful here — it would take up so much space.
He is really the greatest Man for Others on this planet.
Back to Nigeria
A few years ago, I had an opportunity to spend an entire day at St. Peter’s Prep, sitting in on several classes, meeting with seniors and administrators — and I even had a chance to eat lunch with many of the women and men who taught me while I was in high school. That day turned out to be a really sad one, though, because it was the day I learned that Tony would be leaving St. Peter’s Prep to return to a place he’d been before — Nigeria, West Africa.
Oh what a bummer this was to learn.
For two years, Tony was the pastor of a church there. And, for the most part, I didn’t have contact with him during that time period. But now, Tony’s back.
He has a different role now at St. Peter’s. He’s the alumni chaplain.
I haven’t had a chance to ask him yet just what alumni chaplain means. But I’m sure whatever it is, he’ll do it with class. The entire community at Prep is fortunate to have him back. The school is better when he’s there.
There will also be one more fan rooting at sporting events, too. I failed to mention this before, but if there’s a Prep sporting event — even if it’s freshman basketball or, yawn, a track-and-field meet — you’ll likely find Tony there.
And it’s things like this that separate Tony from just about anyone else you’d ever come across.
He’s a true Man for Others.
He should one day be canonized a Saint, though he’d certainly tell you otherwise.
And now, he’s finally home — where he should be, doing the work God called him to do, right in our own backyard.