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Dr. Lewis Barbato had a profound influence on my life -- and my ministry

One of my heroes just died.  I'd like to tell you about him, and about the impact he had on my life.

His name was Dr. Lewis Barbato.  He was a psychiatrist and a deacon – ordained at the age of 70, and active in the deaconate right up until his death this month at the age of 96.

That's right – 96.

Last September, I attended a dinner honoring Dr. Barbato.  Several of Dr. Barbato's fellow deacons spoke.  They gave lovely talks about the experience of serving as deacons alongside this amazingly kind and dedicated man who, in his mid-nineties, was still assisting at daily Mass. 

They were all wonderful talks.  I was, nevertheless, struggling with the temptation to storm the podium and grab the microphone.  I wanted to tell the rest of the story. 

Dr. Barbato had a profound influence on my life. 

He had been a friend of my family's as far back as I could remember.  In the 1970's, I was struggling with a relatively serious case of childhood depression.  It had gone on for several years, and my parents had consulted several child psychologists, all to no avail.  I remember meeting with a few of those doctors myself, and hating it.  I recall one, in particular.  I asked him why I had to be there, and he told me it was because I didn't like myself.  I said, "So?" 

I thought that was normal.

My parents were at the end of their rope when Dr. Barbato caught wind of the situation.  He had already retired from the practice of psychiatry, but he offered to help – free of charge.

I only met with him a few times.  But those meetings had a tremendous impact on me. 

I remember he told me that, if we all knew how much God loves us, we would have no need for psychiatrists.  I remember he told me that, when other people don't like themselves, they often try to pull us down in order to raise themselves up – kind of like a pulley system when one side rises because the other side falls.

Most of all, I remember a simple little story he told me.  It was about a man who walked past a newsstand every day, and said "hello" to the grumpy man who ran it.  The man never responded.  One day someone asked him why he bothered greeting someone who clearly didn't care.   The man replied, "Because, if I stopped, I'd be letting him and his grumpiness change who I am and what I believe is the right thing to do." 

Dr. Barbato helped me to see that my value doesn't come from what other people think of me or how they treat me – it comes from the image and likeness of God, which abides deep within me.  Nobody can change that or take it away.  I therefore do what is right – not because of what other people will think or how they will react, but because I know it is right.

He had an amazing way of making those truths real, and of making them stick.

Dr. Barbato also taught my parents how to reinforce what I was learning and apply it to concrete situations.   I remember my mom reminding me of the pulley system, and how other people's treatment of me was not about me at all, but rather about themselves and their own lack of confidence.

A year later, I was very excited about a class trip I was taking to Washington DC.  But then some roommate scheduling problems emerged – I was placed in a room with "older kids" I didn't know.  Mom was about to intervene on my behalf when Dr. Barbato told her "Leave it alone.  She can handle it now."  And I did.  The first night was bad.  (I remember lying in bed listening to a discussion about sneaking out of the hotel and stealing wine.)  So the next morning I took my newly confident twelve-year-old self to the chaperones, and asked for a different room.  And I got it.

My mother still says that, when I returned, I was a completely different person.

I kept in touch with Dr. Barbato as I grew up.  In recent years, I would meet him for drinks and dinner at his lovely retirement community.  And I saw him around town – at Mass, at meetings, at Church events.  He got older and shorter.  He moved slower.  But he never stopped moving.  He remained active in organizations.  He traveled.  He gave talks.

He was amazing.

I dedicated my book Real Love to Dr. Barbato.  I did it for one simple reason – because if it were not for him and the influence he had on my life, there is no way in the world I would be doing what I am doing today.  The lessons I learned from him, and the confidence I gained as a result, are at the core of everything I do in my ministry.

He has gone to his reward now – to be with his God and his beloved wife Jenna.  I strongly suspect that, at the moment of his death, he heard his Savior say "Well done, good and faithful servant."  He touched many, many lives directly in his 96 years on this earth.And he touched a lot more lives indirectly; including every life my ministry has ever reached.

May God bless and richly reward his soul.

(This article was originally published in December 2004.)

Ignatius Press books by Mary Beth Bonacci:

Mary Beth Bonacci is internationally known for her talks and writings about love, chastity, and sexuality. Since 1986 she has spoken to tens of thousands of young people, including 75,000 people in 1993 at World Youth Day in Denver, Colorado. She appears frequently on radio and television programs, including several appearances on MTV.

Mary Beth has written two books, We're on a Mission from God and Real Love, and also writes a regular, syndicated column for various publications. She has developed numerous videos, including her brand-newest video series, also entitled Real Love. Her video Sex and Love: What's a Teenager to Do? was awarded the 1996 Crown Award for Best Youth Curriculum.

Mary Beth holds a bachelor's degree in Organizational Communication from the University of San Francisco, and a master's degree in Theology of Marriage and Family from the John Paul II Institute at Lateran University. She was also awarded an honorary doctorate in Communications from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, and is listed in Outstanding Young Women of America for 1997.

Visit Mary Beth and Real Love Incorporated online here.


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