There's a song that Norman Paolini, Jr. wrote and was fond of playing but had never recorded. Until one day, Amy Betros, his co-founder and co-director at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, had him sit down with his guitar here in the radio studio where they recorded their Mercy Times program.
"In My Weakness," along with two other Catholic standards, was intended to be used on a series of compact discs for their Generations of Faith education program at the Mission. It will now be the title track on a posthumous collection of Norm's songs (since it is the only recording). This is the chorus:
In my weakness be Thou strong, O Lord
Give me strength to carry on, my Lord
For Your grace will be enough for me,
In my weakness be with me
On what turned out to be Norm's final birthday, his 71st, his wife Linda invited me to their house to talk to one of their dearest friends whom Norm ministered with for over 40 years, Joe Mombrea. As we talked in the front sun porch, extended family and other friends were saying their goodbyes following the birthday party. Afterwards his daughter, Stephanie, told me that Norm was just getting ready to go to sleep and I should come say goodnight. I took his hand, gave him a kiss on the cheek then looked into his eyes and said, "Norm, the Western New York Catholic wants me to write an article about you. Should I tell the truth?"
Norm's face lit up in a huge smile and everyone in the room laughed. I am convinced Norm's would have been the loudest had not the ravages of Parkinson's disease and 2 bouts of brain cancer prevented the impulses from getting to his mouth and vocal cords. Despite that, he was fully alert knowing everyone who was in the room and understanding every word that was said even if his condition would not allow us to understand his response.
Let me say here that if you are expecting a story about Norm's beautiful family or his many ministries or his work at St. Luke's Mission of Mercy, by all means read the previous obituary shared here. You can also search Norm's name at the Buffalo News for 2 wonderful tributes. This is not that story.
I prayed a long time about what I would want to say about Norm. After replaying hours of old programs, listening to dozens of Norm's songs and shedding more than few tears, the only thing I knew was I wanted to write something that would elicit a trademark Norm expression: "Oh, that's perfect!"
Father Bill Quinlivan and I visited Norm a few times during various hospital stays between recovering from his brain surgery and Hospice eventually being brought into his home. In all instances his familiar sense of humor and insight remained intact. Each time we left, Father Bill and I would remark on another of Norm's favorite sayings, "Don't let your suffering go waste."
Norm had a long running relationship with our Office of Communications. His ministries included pretty much every movement of the Catholic Church in the Diocese of Buffalo since Vatican II: Folk Masses, the Charismatic Renewal, prayer groups, Renew groups, marriage renewal, Life Teen, Youth 2000, just to name a few. Those eventually led him to several of our projects and the unifying factor in all of it came down to Norm and his guitar.
In the early 90s through his connections within the Charismatic Renewal he was invited to play music on the Comfort My People program which was produced in our Daybreak TV Productions studios. From that he began to play at the Daybreak produced Televised Mass on WUTV Channel 29 and eventually on cable stations throughout Western New York.
2 of the first things I found in the Catholic Center radio studio when I started in January of 1991 were Norm's vinyl record, I'm Just Beginning, and his cassette, Love Never Fails. I had made Cursillo weekend number 133 while a Student at Fredonia State College and Norm was also on that weekend. Since I at least knew him and we had the copywrite permissions to use his recordings, I could include his songs where we lacked those rights for other music.
Eventually I was invited to be a guest on Now is The Time, a weekly program by Norm and Amy that was an extension of their various ministries. Not 6 months later Amy called me and asked if there was any way I could produce their program since the current producer was pursuing opportunities out of town.
Thus began a 25 year tenure behind the board through what eventually became their Mercy Times program on Catholic Radio 101.7FM, The Station of the Cross. I also produced and co-hosted a Christian music program there with Norm and Father Bill. As that station moved away from music programming, I once again became restricted to using music we had explicit permission to broadcast, so Norm's became prominently featured once again.
The weekly sessions here in our office were legendary for taking an entire afternoon to record 30 or 40 minutes of content. Most would say it's because Amy brought the Mission with her via cell phone and always had to make "just one more call" to someone who needed them. But if you ask our staff, many would tell you it was often because upon their arrival, Norm would go from office to office, desk to desk, with a personal greeting reminiscent of his lifelong ministry in hospital rooms and churches. And Norm's response to someone's story of the day was always the same, "I'll pray for you," or if the opportunity arose, "Let's pray right now."
These momentary visits in our office were born out of a life of ministry. On a Mercy Times program that aired on June 13, 2015 Amy was on pilgrimage and unavailable. So at a St Luke's fundraiser I happened to be sitting with Norm, his brother Rick and their wives and said we should do the show that week about how they both got started in ministry. Coincidentally it would be the last program recorded before Norm's first brain tumor operation. Norm, Rick and I talked about all of those early Church movements and how Norm became involved and eventually drew Rick into them.
As Rick recalled, "I remember one day my grandmother said to me, 'Ricky, what's wrong with your brother?' I said, 'What do mean gramma?' She said, 'He's got his bible all the time and he's praising Jesus everywhere.' And it was a shock to some of our family because the good Catholics didn't do all that! I said, 'You know gramma, he's involved in this movement and they really love the Lord and they study the bible and they want to praise Jesus for everything they do.'
"And he was very much into the ministry, and I was not. I had done everything that Norm always did and I was not comfortable with that. But like everything else, if Norm did it I trusted that there was value in it and I would look to see what he was seeing in it. Which is what happened with the Divine Mercy devotion."
"I was doing it since the end of Vatican II," Norm explained, "right at Canisius High School. I look back and a friend, who is really like a brother, came to St. Margaret's to sing in between a talk that was being given by a priest who had a beautiful ministry. And I met this man, who was a singer, and they need a guitar player behind him. And Joe Mombrea asked me and I played the songs he was singing as a part of the ministry and he invited me.
"He asked me, 'Would you like to come to this prayer meeting?' I asked, 'What's that?' And he said, 'Well, just come.' So I did and as we entered lo and behold over in the corner I see Father John Sturm, (SJ) who was a prefect of discipline at Canisius High School! And I recognized him and several other people I was friends with or was familiar with. And I'm wondering, 'What are they doing here?!'
"Anyway, they started singing ... and I recognized some of the songs and started singing. And all of a sudden my hands went in the air. And people kind of turned over their shoulder (whispering), 'Isn't he new? Who is this guy?' But I always look back and I say it was the grace of God who called me to that. In our family we were taught to be open to God, His ways and to say yes to God when He calls and so forth.
"So somehow that was the beginning. And I look back and I know today that it WAS the beginning. But it was He who made the call. Because it was easy for me to put my hands up in prayer. I had been playing 3 Masses a weekend for 25 years at St. Margaret's and it all was beginning to fit in. Beginning to be a part of what would later be almost my total life".
That was in the early 1970s. After years of playing and singing in churches, often songs he had written himself, eventually Norm got bit by the recording bug. And once again it was Rick being dragged into it.
"What happened was he called me one day," Rick remembered, "and this is pushing ahead to the early 80s, and he said, 'Hey Rick, come down to SelectSound Studios, I'm making an album!' And I knew about Norm's talent as a musician and a songwriter but I also knew his finances. And I said, 'Norm, who's going to pay for all this?' He said, 'God's going to pay for it.' And I said, 'Norm, God doesn't have a checkbook.'
"So I went down and I started to see what he was doing and I got involved in the record. And then I started to go with Norm when he was doing ministries and
which brought up the Renew. He was invited to do Renew programs in parishes and I went with him. Because I wanted to help him sell records!
"Actually at one of the parishes, and I don't remember which one it was, they had protesters! I was shocked! They had no idea what this program was and they thought it was some un-catholic program. And a fellow came up to me afterward and said, 'I sat through this and I guess it's pretty solid.' So I asked, 'Well, what were you expecting?' But they didn't know.
"What happened was I kept going with it because it had such an influence on my brother. As I've said right along I stuck with things because I knew what a difference they had made in Norm's life and his spirituality. And then I came to the entries (in Saint Faustina's diaries) that changed my life, entry 342 and 343. And when I read those I said I have to know everything I can know about this Saint Faustina. It basically made sense.
"342 says, 'Suffering is the greatest treasure on earth. It purifies the soul.' At the time I was going through difficulties. My wife suffers from depression and we have 5 young children and there was a lot going on in my life and I was suffering. And I said, 'No, it's not! It's not even fun, okay?!' And then 343 says, 'True love is measured by thermometer of suffering.' And then she says, 'Jesus, I thank you for the little, daily crosses.'
"I thought to myself, well then the greatest lover of all is Jesus Christ, because he suffered the most. And who do I love the most? I love my wife. So who should I suffer the most for? And I said, 'Oh wow, this makes so much sense for all the stuff I'm going through right now.' And I don't like them at all! But Saint Faustina is saying thank you, Jesus for them!"
During all of this, in Norm's family, his wife, Linda, was perhaps the one experiencing the suffering. She talked about those same early days on a Mercy Times episode from August 23, 2014. When Norm first revealed that he planned to quit his job as a cancer researcher at Roswell Park Institute and buy the former St. Luke's Church with Amy, it followed years of his already being away from home many nights doing ministry.
"It's still a vivid memory," described Linda. "It's sort of like the carpet being
pulled out from under you. Because we were a family working hard. It was a bit of a shock to think he was going to give up the state job with it's security. I'm a very practical person and trying to raise a family. We had children in college and children in Catholic high school and grade school at the time so it was little bit difficult.
"But because I've always relied on my faith I just thought if it was of God everything would work out. All things work together for those who trust God and are called according to His purpose. I always tell people if he said he was going to buy a bar I would have said we need to sit down and talk because I don't agree. But because I really trusted that it was of God it made it a little less fearful."
Norm's children and the rest of the family were not quite as trusting. But they were used to his ministry and his spirituality which often resulted, as with his brother Rick, in them being pulled in.
Linda explained, "We had taken in a pregnant teenager who had a very difficult upbringing, was abused and my children saw a whole different side of life from the sheltered, traditional, suburban, middle-class situation that we were in. So (our daughter Theresa) was the first one when we had the homeless lady show up every week for dinner to welcome her in, to fix her something to eat, to try to give her a hug."
Norm interjected at this point in the program saying, "That was Mary by the way. The one who Theresa said when she died, 'Daddy write a song for Mary." And that was We'll Always Remember."
Linda continued, "I just kept on going and I think I was open to the Lord's plan but all of a sudden there was this huge change because I was no longer in control of my calendar. My husband was always out with the Charismatic Renewal, prayer groups and ministry and funerals just as (before St. Luke's). But all of a sudden there was a new entity and the old parts didn't decrease. So it added a whole dimension of him being pulled in a different direction and it was a little bit overwhelming I have to say.
"Our life has just been a fast pace from the beginning. But because we had the Holy Spirit through the Charismatic Renewal and they prayed for me for years to be touched by the Holy Spirit because I thought it was little out there, I was more conservative. But once the Holy Spirit touched me and we started with Marriage Renewal, which helped us communicate better. And I realized that even though he was out there ministering and thousands and thousands of people were touched by him in so many ways, I realized through Marriage Renewal that I was still number one with him. Of course after the Lord, but that helped.
"So it's been a healing process. It's the healing of the Lord through those times. And I have to say I wasn't always crazy about Amy's crazy ideas and more and more things to do. I mean, how can you possibly do all these things and do a good job? But I've lived to see the fruits and the Lord touches our hearts when it's time for us to be open to them."
In many ways the spark that caught flame in Norm's life was ignited by his friend and early partner in ministry, Joe Mombrea. When I spoke to him that night at Norm's and Linda's house I most certainly wanted to hear him tell that story. His version started in the room of a little girl dying at Roswell. Joe was asked by a friend in the Charismatic Renewal to go pray with the father who was keeping vigil with his daughter.
"And while I was there," Joe recalled, "Norm walked into the room with his guitar. And that's the first time I saw him. And he was singing to this little girl and ministering. And then we got to talking out in the hallway and we exchanged numbers and I never called him."
Eventually though, Norm called him, so Joe invited he and Linda to dinner with his wife at their house. They exchanged dinners for some time after that, discovering they had much in common with their families as well as their spirituality.
"I very cautiously mentioned," he went on, "because he was a religious man right from the start. He had the mind of God right from the very beginning. I mean, he impressed me so much with his ministry at Roswell. And you could just see he was a man of God.
"He was always very Catholic. And I came from a background where I completely rejected my faith. For 7 years I never went to Mass or anything. I was a cradle Catholic. I rejected everything when I was 18 years old. And I didn't come back to my faith until the Charismatic Renewal happened, through my mom. She's the one who talked me into going to a prayer meeting. So I was very involved with the Grand Island prayer group which was the only prayer group in WNY at that time.
"So I said to Norm, 'You're a man of God evidently, you might want to check this out, this prayer group on Grand Island.' And I picked him up and we were driving there and I was so nervous because he was SO conservative. And I was telling him this may be a little shocking. And needless to say he fell head over heels with it. He was just so impressed. And with me, at my first prayer meeting, I thought they were all bananas! It was so strange to me. It was nothing that I ever saw."
As I listened I recalled the similarity to Linda's initial reaction to Charismatic Renewal that she had described on Mercy Times. Yet for Norm, discerning as he was, it had seemed so easy. It also seemed easy for Norm to be readily accepted just about anywhere he was: at Roswell, in a parish, at a prayer group, on the East Side of Buffalo in an abandoned church, or at a church media office in downtown Buffalo. That's what I really wanted to hear Joe tell me about.
"The reason they love Norm," he posited, "is because he has no capacity for judgement. He never judges anyone. If somebody comes to him and tells him ... anything ... he sees their heart and he tries to understand what caused them to do that, why they're living that way. He's always had that capacity. I have never known anyone, who I've spent that much time with as I have with Norm, who never said a judgmental thing to me about someone else. He's the only man I knew who never judged anyone. And that's why I think everyone loves him.
"He didn't have answers but he understood. He understood what you were going through. He had that capacity. Very extraordinary, very unusual gift that he had and this is why people were drawn to him. They knew if they went to him they could confide in him. And he would never judge them, or make them feel judged. Or make them feel like he was holier than they were. Ever."
As gifted and talented and likable as Norm was, he could seemingly be easily distracted. "He's been accused of being in his own world, many times," Joe pointed out. "Well, it's because he's focused. He immerses himself in what you're interested in, and he becomes a part of that."
On the day we had this conversation everyone at the party knew that Norm's time with us was drawing to a close. It's likely the reason Linda was so willing to invite one more guest into an already full home, a gesture for which I will be eternally grateful. I asked Joe about Norm's impending homecoming with the Lord.
"What's so heartbreaking about this for me," he somehow managed to say, "it's like being at the foot of the Cross. For me It's like seeing Jesus on the Cross. And he offers all this up. I said to him one time, 'I don't know how you're enduring this. I could never endure what you're carrying.' And he said, 'I offer it for people I know need this offering.'
"I think he's patiently waiting. I think he's looking forward to the threshold. He's certainly not fighting it at all. He's very peaceful. He's very, very peaceful. And he looks at you now ... I saw him tonight and I haven't seen him for 3 months because I've been gone. I look at him tonight and he looks 10 years younger to me. He's looking more like a child than a man. And he's got this peaceful demeanor about him that's childlike. I just recall the words of Jesus saying unless you be as a little child. And he's entering the Kingdom of Heaven that way."
I recalled another Mercy Times, the bookend to our previous conversation with the Paolini brothers. It was when Norm and Amy finally recorded a new program following the year away as Norm recovered from his brain surgery. After the show opened with that imperfect recording of "In My Weakness," Norm's familiar sense of humor came shining through immediately.
"Good afternoon Amy and good afternoon to all our listeners out there," he followed the way he always did after Amy's introduction. "No, we didn't run off to England..."
Based on the rest of Norm's words that day, it seems Joe's insight was true. In fact, Norm also quoted the very same scripture passage as Linda talking about her early struggles with the ministry.
"So if I had to go through it all again I would," Norm said. "Which leads us to our discussion today. God works all things to the good for those who are called according to his purpose. Well, for a long time I've asked the Lord to use me. And I've visited many cancer patients. But I'll tell you this time it has a whole different flavor.
"What comes to mind when I sit still is that Jesus knew this was coming and he said yes. And faith is evidence of things not seen. Yet we do have some kind of idea that it's not going to be perfect. In other words, the strength that He gives us is for the moment. And all of us are going to go through something. Especially when you aspire to serve the Lord. And you go out there and you say okay, Lord, I want to work for you.
"Now that temptation, that trial, could be anything. It could be someone you love going through cancer. It could be someone you love having a struggle in their marriage. It could be someone whose pain in their body for whatever reason is a terrible thing."
At the end of Mercy Times Amy always gives what she calls homework. It's something related to the topic of that week's show for listeners to do or pray about during the coming week. On this particular program, for the only time ever, Norm gave the homework.
"I'm thinking of knowing what the Lord had ahead for me and accepting it beforehand," he offered. "See if there's anything in your day that you could do that with. 'Lord, I think that person who I'm working with is going to cause me anxiety today. Give me the strength, give me your Spirit for that.' Because you're working with the Holy Spirit. He's the one who has the answer. And it's almost always love, rather than scorning or a fight or something like that. And His Spirit is the only one that can do that."
Take one more look at that picture of Norm in his bed at home with his guitar. At that point he had very little movement on his left side. He couldn't get words out very well. Yet you can clearly see he had not wasted his suffering, which you would expect from a man whose final chorus went a bit like he sang it:
In my weakness You are strong, my Lord
You give me strength to carry on, my Lord
For Your grace it is enough for me
In my weakness You're with me