Putting first things first: Serve and love

When my good friend lay dying of cancer, I didn’t know where to turn. A tragedy of that magnitude has a way of upending daily life as we know it and changing our view of the way things are supposed to be.

This fellow was a young man, and young men seldom think about their mortality, until it’s too late. So I called one of the few people I knew who would know what to say, a man named Frank Wissel, who also happened to be a priest and the pastor at St. Mary Church in Greenwich.

As your life approaches its end, which is an experience we all will share, everything that preoccupied you for 99% of your time on Earth takes on a different meaning. You look at the way you measured success and see it through an entirely different lens. Everything you thought was so important suddenly loses its luster and a lot of things that you never bothered to think about suddenly seem important.

Msgr. Wissel, who died last week, talked to my friend a long time. He gave him last rites and heard his confession, which is a Catholic thing that we usually think about later than we should. When he left, I walked him to the door and thanked him. For once in my life, I’d made the right decision.

A week or so later, my friend passed away, and as it turned out, Msgr. Wissel said the funeral Mass in a packed church. For his sermon, he read a poem about taking the time to live life the way it was meant to be lived, not in the relentless pursuit of prestige, possessions and pleasure.

The poem, he told me, was one he often used during funerals when people are looking for answers. It was about life and falling victim to the rat race. It was about making the most of each moment and being sure that your priorities are true priorities that won’t fail you — or make you regret you lived the way you did.

Life, he said, passes by a lot faster than we expect, until it’s too late and you realize you frittered away valuable time for the wrong reasons. You have to put first things first. It was a lesson I needed to hear. It was a lesson I hope I never forget, and more importantly, it was a lesson Frank Wissel lived by.

Msgr. Wissel lived by the principles he professed. After 17 years as pastor of St. Mary Church, he had recently retired and moved to the Nathaniel Witherell home in Greenwich.

A few weeks ago, he had been honored during a ceremony to dedicate a hand-carved marble statue of Our Lady of Grace made in Italy and given anonymously to the church in recognition of his service and in appreciation for St. Mary’s intercession in curing cancer patients.

Born in Brooklyn, Wissel, 76, attended Long Island University, where he received master’s degrees in science and professional studies. He later earned a doctorate in psychotheology and ministry. Before he entered the seminary, he was a psychologist for the New York City Board of Education and taught for 17 years in the Brooklyn Catholic schools.

In 1977, he was ordained by Bishop Walter W. Curtis and served in parishes in the Bridgeport Diocese. He later became principal of Kolbe Cathedral High School and was the director of the St. Maximilian Kolbe House of Studies, which has helped students from Africa, Colombia, Ecuador, Indonesia and Peru earn college degrees. I had heard about his work with the immigrant community and knew some of the people he helped along the way.

Looking back on his years of service, he said his goal had been a simple one but not always an easy one. It was, “Serve and love the people. Try and absorb all their pains and suffering. And let them know you really do love and care about them.”

And the people who knew him will tell you that was a goal he accomplished, right to the end when he was confined to a wheelchair because of health issues. He set the example for the lessons and virtues he spoke of.

Joe Pisani may be reached at joefpisani@yahoo.com.