WCR PHOTO | CHRIS MILLER
Joe Cristini's life turned into a roller coaster, pushing him into chronic depression.
EDMONTON – Sidetracked by chronic depression, the death of his wife and a dysfunctional family life, Joe Cristini's faith journey took many twists and turns before he finally discovered God's presence.
Cristini grew up in central Italy, in a small town later destroyed in the deadly earthquake of April 2009.
He and his mother immigrated to Canada in 1952. His father had already been working in Trail, B.C., since 1948. Consequently, he did not see his father for the first time until he was two years and nine months old.
Joe would not go near his father, as he was a stranger. Until his mid-teens, his relationship with his father was strained due to his harsh discipline.
He learned that his father was brought up in the same way, and he had also been in a British prisoner of war camp in India for six years during the Second World War. With this understanding, their relationship grew into a loving one, and there was eventual forgiveness.
Cristini was the speaker at the Edmonton Catholic Charismatic Prayer Breakfast, held Dec. 10 at the Chateau Louis Conference Centre, with more than 80 people in attendance.
After high school, most of Cristini's life was spent in Edmonton, save for a few years in Calgary while he completed his master's degree in social work, and a short stay in Kimberley, B.C.
His parents never prayed in front of the children, and Cristini never felt a strong obligation to pray, an attitude that he kept well into his adult life. His parents did not view their role as teachers of the faith. Catholicism was something he learned in school from the nuns.
"I do not want to leave an incorrect impression of my parents' influence on my faith," he added. "Their belief and trust in God was unshakeable. Their devotion and respect for things holy was completely clear. Their obedience to clergy and religious authority was absolute."
What he lacked in instruction was more than made up for by living faith values, especially that of generosity and sacrifice for others.
Even in Grade 2, Cristini understood that the instruction in religion class was of serious importance, and was not just another subject.
"I was called to live what was being said. What I did mattered to God, to me and to those around me," he said.
Aside from family and school influences, his faith developed during three years in the seminary. He discerned a vocation to the priesthood, but discovered that was not his calling. At the time, he viewed this discovery as a failure on his part.
Happily married with children, he experienced a progressive climb in his social work career. He supervised about 800 foster homes and was successful in recruiting more social workers.
But in April 1984 he hit an emotional wall: depression. Contributing factors were a high stress work environment, burnout, ongoing family issues and a chemical imbalance.
"This was not only a darkness of the soul but a darkness of mind. When I was severely depressed I was hospitalized for short periods of time, but it took a considerable amount of time to recover well enough to function," said Cristini.
He referred to this time in his life as a "black cave" and prayer seemed to be of little help. He felt abandoned by God. He also felt shame from being mentally ill. Adding to the difficulty was that his wife was stricken with the same illness.
"If you've ever heard or read that people would readily give up an arm or a leg to be rid of their illness, this is most accurate. If that were the cure, I would have taken it," he said.
Jesus was always present, evident in the faces and actions of faithful friends who stood by him. Through prayer, medication and counselling, he has returned to an approximation of his former self.
"Only prayer gives me hope of not going back into the abyss," said Cristini.
After the death of his first wife, he went to a support group for widowers. There, he met Lynn, the woman he would marry in 1991. She has been the biggest influence on his return to a prayerful life and to the Catholic charismatic renewal.
"I made God much more central to my life. She has become my greatest supporter, helper and advisor in the growth of my faith," he said.
Part of his reason for marrying Lynn was that he felt incomplete as a single parent. He wanted a spouse, but even more so he needed a mother for his children.
Given that his children were adolescents, the untimely death of their mother and other circumstances, they did not accept her as a mother. Marriage was difficult from the start because both still carried baggage from their first marriages.
His frustration led to anger, which alienated his wife, and resulted in the children becoming manipulative. All of them tried to correct problems in their own ways. The dysfunctional family life overtaxed her, and made him feel guilty.
Relating with his wife's adult children was daunting. With a blended family, six people in a household - all with strong personalities, all with different ideas, ideals and qualities - led to inevitable problems. The common thread was their determination to live out their faith.
"All of them were seeking to maintain Church in their lives," he said.
Prayer slowly mended the torn tapestry of their lives. The family became more like a beautiful patchwork, boldly stitched in hope and restoration.
"We have learned that seeking and protecting our sacred space of marriage is a powerful thing in our family," he said. Now the children view the parents as indivisible, as a pillar to rely on.