Out of the World and Into the Kingdom--
Fr. Joe Landi's journey to Priesthood
by Rissa Singson

 

          Joe is standing alone on the side of mountain. Everywhere it is dismal and gray. Then he feels someone's presence. "Who's there?" he calls out in the darkness. "I Am," answers a voice. 
        
Thinking that someone is playing a joke on him he presses on, "Well, what’s your name?" 
           Again the voice answers, "I AM." 
           Suddenly he realized he is in God's presence.  To his surprise and for the first time, Joe articulates what’s wrong with his life—why he’s unhappy in spite of having attained the American dream. 
           "Help me Lord!", he cried out in anguish.

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              "Look ahead of you and you’ll see that there are many roads to travel on," the voice continues.  Ahead of him, Joe sees a pathway leading to a gate. As he walks through the archway into the warmth of the sun, he feels a heavy yoke lifting from him. There, lying on the grass of the beautiful garden is Jesus. Joe sits beside him and a euphoria that all his money and success never gave him floods his being.  "Come, let us walk together," says Jesus as He stands and reaches for Joe’s hand to help him up.  Before taking His hand, Joe picks a yellow flower, thinking, "I’ll keep it as a remembrance."
             Joe awakes sitting up in bed. The blinds are up and the full moon outside his window floods his room.  He stands, walks to the bookcase and puts the flower in the Bible that he admittedly has not touched since his confirmation when his dad gave it.  He goes back to bed thinking, "I’ll be able to look at that flower always and remember the wonderful feeling that I had."
             Then Joe wakes up from his dream for real.  Not knowing where to draw the line between his dream and reality, he turns on the light and pulls the Bible from the shelf.  He shakes it to see if the flower would fall out.  It does not.  He begins to read the book. It’s the story of the rich young man who asked Jesus, "What must I do to have eternal life?" Jesus replied, "Keep the commandments."  But the rich man persisted, "I have kept all these.  What more need I do?" Jesus said,  "If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor…then come and follow me."
             That’s exactly what he did. Fr. Joe Landi, never regretted giving up his house, his cars and his successful business in real estate and insurance when he entered the seminary in 1984.   Like St. Paul, St. Francis and many who have heeded the call of the Lord with such abandon, he has found peace and joy that can’t compare with anything this world has to offer.  What’s more, he discovered that God returns in greater measure what he had given back to Him.  "[Giving it away] is not an easy process.  It is not easy winding down one’s life.  At the same time you know that it’s gonna change dramatically and you have responsibilities to people," says Fr. Joe, a parochial vicar at St. Cecilia’s parish in San Francisco and the San Francisco archbishop's Liaison to the Charismatic Renewal.

              Today, without his collar, he is looking more like the man of the world he used to be.  Casually dressed in a navy Polo sport shirt, khaki slacks and blue suede sneakers, he sits relaxed in front of a desk whose top has disappeared under the piles of paper competing for his attention.  His office at the rectory is small and modestly appointed. It’s a far cry from the offices he had in San Rafael, San Francisco and Oakland when he was general manager of his real estate and insurance brokerage firm.  During those times, his efforts paid off greatly.  His extensively renovated home in Marin county and the cars—a silver Jaguar, a black Cadillac and a white El Camino—were just some of his trophies. "I got to the point in my life when the biggest decisions of the day was what I was going to wear and car I was going to drive," he recalls with a smile, the crow’s feet near his brown eyes deepening.
             In the months that followed his dream in 1981, Joe found reasons why he could not obey the heavenly voice. "But every time I found a reason not to, the Lord would show me a viable reason to," he says.  So he started looking for a manager to take over his position.  When he could not find one, Joe finally told his four other business partners that he wanted out.  Legal snags prevented Joe from selling his 51% share of the company. But Joe had an ace because the corporation owed him $250,000.  Although the company was doing well on a monthly basis, he knew that it did not have that much money in its coffers.  When the note came due, the shareholders expected him to renew the loan. "He’s not gonna walk away because he has too much invested in it," said one of the owners who later sued him.  But Joe called the note due, thereby forcing the corporation into bankruptcy. "What they didn’t know was that even if I had millions tied up in the business, I still would have walked away." he says.

          It took him three years to free himself of all his business obligations and settling the suits out of court.   He also sold his cars, his house and the most of his possessions.  "I realized in the process that many of these things owned me; I didn’t own them.  Part of preparing to get to the place where I am now,  is first of all, to feel comfortable by giving possessions away--not expecting anything in return; and secondly, by divorcing myself from the need of them," says Fr Joe.

          In the meantime, he attended the University of California at Berkeley, to get the educational academic units needed for a Community College Instructor's Credential and took a teaching job in the Business Skills Center at the College of Marin.  Concerned that they could not "afford" him knowing his former Marin business status, he told college officials,  "Money is not the criteria here.  I’m very happy to do this for nothing.  I would find fulfillment here." Aside from filling up his time, the job allowed Joe to learn computer skills and to relate to people in a teaching environment, much like a priest would relate to his congregation.

          It was only when Joe received a letter from the archdiocese saying that he had been accepted into the seminary that he actually told his relatives and close friends of his decision.  Their reactions were varied--most were of unbelief.  His  brother, Walt, with whom he had a friendly competitive relationship, couldn't understand why he would be leaving the lucrative business he was in to become a priest.  Walt remarked to  his wife, "I bet he found a way to make more money at it."  Many  friends asked him, "Why are you doing this?  Why would you want to give all of this away?" 
          Joe could never give them a sufficient answer.   In retrospect he concludes, "You cannot explain the feeling that one has when you get this connection with God we call a 'calling.'"   If you ignore it, it’s worse than the feeling that one’s life has no meaning.  When you are certain that God is asking you to do something, and even though you don’t quite know what, you must trust that the Holy Spirit will make it all clear in due time."
          So in 1984, Joe entered the minor seminary, St. Joseph's College in Mountain View, California, and then in 1985, St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, California for four years.  At 51, it was not easy for him to learn to be a fulltime student all over again—like keeping up with his studies, doing research papers, acquiring pastoral skills and developing a prayer life.   "I did learn early on that quotation marks make the difference between research and  plagiarism,"  he laughs.  "I like to think that I grew from that experience."
          However, after two years, he started to get discouraged.  It was then that he discovered the Charismatic Renewal at Our Lady of Mt Carmel Church, Redwood City, a parish where he was assigned to do weekend work.  At a prayer meeting he attended, he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit in a way he never encountered at the seminary.  "I learned to totally rely on the power of the Holy Spirit at work in my life," shares Fr. Joe.  "Often challenged, but I've never been disappointed."

           It was his deep faith that made him victorious in the trials he encountered at the seminary.  "The seminary system was not designed for older seminarians and I relied on the Spirit to guide me through the maze of sometimes conflicting directions," he recalls.  During the final year before his deaconate ordination, Fr. Joe gave a homily at a Seminary Chapel Mass where he commented satirically on the actions of one of his professors at the seminary.  His comments were taken negatively by two professors on the evaluation board and they objected to his ordination.  His case for ordination landed on the archbishop’s desk.
         "In retrospect, it wasn’t the best homily that I’ve given.  But on the other side of that, I knew it was not going to be the only homily that I would give.   That too was a learning experience--seminary faculty is the modern equivalent of 'Caesar's wife'.  I also leaned that my view of myself was more important than what others may think or say about me."  said Fr. Joe, who says he learned early in his vocation that criticism will always accompany his calling.  "My faculty advisor was more concerned than I was.  I knew I was going to be ordained.  The Lord didn't bring me through five years of seminary to prepare me for one homily." 

          In 1990, Fr. Joe was ordained at the age of 57.  His experience has definitely been a boon to the Church.  Aside from his parochial duties at St. Veronica Church in South San Francisco and now at St. Cecilia Church, San Francisco,  he is the archbishop’s liaison to the Charismatic Renewal.  His other duties include editing The San Francisco Charismatics, the monthly faith publication of the Renewal containing enlightening articles for Catholic born-again Christians.  It has a circulation of 14,500.  To reach a wider audience, he took the newsletter to cyberspace--www.sfSpirit.com.  When the articles were first published on the web site in September 1997, it got 50 hits a week.  That soon rose to 100, then to 250. Today, sfSpirit.com has an average of 600 hits a day with over 100,000 visitors in its first nine months.  The web site now has video teachings  and live broadcasts of Charismatic Masses.  For him, using internet and its related technology is just another vehicle for spreading the Gospel.

           Aside from his involvement in the Charismatic Renewal, Fr. Joe also lends his business expertise to the Sierra Point Credit Union where he served as board chair.  His experience in credit unions began after college when he worked as an underwriter for an insurance company. "I feel that I need to give something back to the community using expertise in developing credit unions which God has given me," he says.  He left the board in February 2003 as he began a sabbatical for studies at the North American College at the Vatican.

         While he can lay claim to many achievements as a priest, his most meaningful one would be bringing his family to the Lord.  After seeing the changes in his life, his brothers started to inquire about the Catholic faith.  "How do I get the feeling in my life that you have?" they questioned him.  Two years after his ordination, Fr. Joe baptized his two brothers, two nephews and two grand nephews--three generations all on the same day!

         Fr. Joe was also instrumental in preparing his brother Walt for his death. Walt had millions stashed away from a successful trucking business. But towards the end of his life, when he was suffering from lung and throat cancer, he realized the futility of his attainments in the light of eternity. "I want to thank you. There was a point in my life when I was afraid to die... but you’ve made this process easy for me. I ’m at the point where I’m ready," he told Fr. Joe before he passed away in 1995.  It’s things like these that makes the calling worthwhile for Fr. Joe. "The best day in business isn’t as good as the worse day in ministry," says the priest who believes that the Lord has given back him much more than he gave up.

          And He has!  For most of his vacations,  he volunteers as a chaplain on Holland America's cruse ships.  "Tough duty but someone has to do it," he jokes.  Fr. Joe drives around town in a metallic brown Mercedes Benz, a gift he received from a friend.  He was praying for a new car to replace his old Ford in need of repair.  To those who arch their eyes over his car, he advises, "Next time I pray for a car I'll specify year, make and model.   Yes, it would be nice that we could not have to have the material things but an automobile is a basic necessity in our time.  The truth is that whether I’m driving a Mercedes or a Ford or riding my bicycle (also a gift), I’m just as happy.  There was a point in my life when I would not have been because driving the Jaguar made me feel good.  Now I honor the Mercedes with my presence," he says "And God makes me feel good."

         The size, intricate architecture and gilded interior of St. Cecilia’s church and the huge rectory where he lives with four other priests, by comparison, makes Fr. Joe’s former house in wealthy Marin Country look like a poor man’s home.  However, at the rectory, there are secretaries, there’s someone who cleans his rectory apartment, a someone who cooks his mostly vegetarian menu, another person who does the laundry, and a gardener.  "All I’ve given up is paying for them myself," he told a friend who recently asked him again how he could have turned away from all his possessions.  "When you give up something for the Lord,  the Lord gives more in return.  It may not be tit for tat but you always get something in return," he says.  "And my cup overflows!"

          In his rectory office, the only vestige of his former life are family photo albums and a couple of artworks. One is a painting made by a friend depicting the St. Joseph’s Cathedral in San Jose by the late artist, John Aguair. The other is a stained glass portrait of Martin Luther which came from a demolished church in Berkeley.  Both don’t have any particular meaning to Fr. Joe except that it used to be part of his home.  But somehow, as they hang on different walls in his office, they represent the contrast and balance of his life as he lives out his calling.

           One day, Fr. Joe received a letter criticizing him about something that he wrote in the newsletter.  The letter sender sent a copy of it to the archbishop.  The next letter he opened came from a woman who wrote, "I get so much help from what you say in your homilies and your articles. Thank you.  I would have sent a copy to the archbishop but I was afraid that he would move you and we would lose you."   Fr. Joe laughs, saying, "That puts what I do in a proper perspective.  I try to do what is right.  I begin the day in prayer and end the day in prayer.  Sometimes in between that I make mistakes.  So before I go to bed at night, I pray, ‘Forgive me Lord for those times I have offended.  Lord I am trying to live life your way.  If you want me to try again tomorrow, call me at 6 am.  If not, I’m ready for whatever you will.'"