Beat of a different drummer

Aug. 3-16, 2006
VOL 125 NO. 26
Beat of a different drummer
By Connie Cissell/ SUN editor
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch , submitted & file photos
Father Michael Bassano learns life lessons while he serves as a missionary

Thailand is a long way from the Southern Tier, but then again, so is Chile.
Father Michael Bassano, MM, grew up in the Binghamton area with his two brothers, Paul and Ted. He graduated from Catholic Central High School in 1967. Ted, only 16 months older, went to public high school but Mike wanted to go to a Catholic school. He heard the beat of a different drummer then and he’s still listening to it today.

Father Mike passed through the Syracuse Diocese this June and July as part of a visit away from his current home, a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Ordained a priest for the Syracuse Diocese in 1975 after graduating from Wadhams Hall and St. Bernard’s, Father Mike has been with the Maryknoll Missionaries since 1987 and officially became part of the community in 1997 when Bishop James Moynihan released him from the diocese allowing him to commit to Maryknoll. His first assignment as an associate with the missionaries was in Santiago, Chile. Father Mike served there from 1988 to 1997 before moving to Thailand where he has been for the past eight years.

Greatly affected by the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980 and the brutal killing of Maryknoll sisters in Central America, Father Mike said he felt a calling to go beyond the borders of the diocese and enter into a broader mission with the church. While he loves visiting family and old friends when he returns to the U.S., he still longs to serve and revels in his journey.

While in Thailand he has worked and lived in the slums in Bangkok and then, for the past three years, in a Buddhist temple that is a haven for people suffering from HIV/AIDS.
In between assignments, there is time for reflection and for learning about his newest home. He said he likes the idea of changing countries every eight to 10 years. It gives him enough time to understand the culture, learn the language and to build relationships — “to get the feel for everything,” he said. Just how this spiritual wanderer manages to cover so much ground is a mystery solved after observing how he communicates and interacts with others. He is best described as a sort of Pied Piper who, through warm conversation with maybe a little gentle prodding by way of music, leads souls to Christ.

It was in Chile where Father Mike took up his guitar and went out into the main square in Santiago, a city of more than four million people, and reenacted the Gospel of Matthew. At first his presentation drew only a few dozen people, but after a while, hundreds would watch as he sang a tune from Godspell in Spanish and enticed onlookers to take part in his impromptu production. The people of Chile are outdoors, he thought, out in the streets, so he brought Christ to them. When he wasn’t proclaiming the Gospel in the street, he was bringing it to the families in the outlying slums, serving impoverished people whose faith and love of God taught him valuable lessons. “These were Christian-based communities where I began to realize that the people are the church,” Father Mike said.

During his years in Chile, at the end of the reign of the infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet, people frequently disappeared or were tortured, and protests for peace were met with tear gas and bullets. The tumultuous times in Chile were followed by the calm and peacefulness of the Buddhist temple where now he plays guitar for people dying of AIDS. Coexisting with the Buddhist monk who works with him doesn’t seem a problem for the Catholic priest. “I really wanted to experience the Buddhist culture, to be in that culture and deepen my own understanding. There is real unity in diversity,” Father Mike said. “It is the spirit of compassion that unites us all.”

Father Mike has found a sense of peace in living so compassionately. “Buddhism is not a religion of creeds or doctrine,” he said. “It is a way to be in the world, of inner-peace with yourself and with your neighbor.” He sees that description as one that fits his own Catholic Christianity as well. There are statues of both Buddha and Jesus where he is now. “Both are signs of what our interior life should be. Wasn’t it St. Teresa of Avila who said, ‘Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes God looks through with compassion on the world’?”

Father John Flanagan is pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Utica and he has known Father Mike since they both served at St. John’s Church in Utica in the late 1970s. When Father Flanagan visited him in Chile, he was amazed to see how immersed Father Mike was in the culture.
“He’s very adept at languages. Some people there thought he was a native,” Father Flanagan said. “He is very gifted and he’s a people-person, yet he’s very spiritual. He’s always learning. He’s a good student as well as a good teacher. He’s like Francis at heart — preach the Gospel and sometimes use words.”

While his foray into the Chilean culture brought him face to face with the social justice component of his faith, Father Mike’s experience in Thailand has brought him closer to the interior quality. “In Chile I would hear things like, ‘Father, will you help us? They have taken my son,’ or ‘Father, will you come march with us?’” Father Mike said.

At the Buddhist temple north of Bangkok he experiences a different type of conversation in the eyes and slow movements of the very sick. “There are around 150 people there now and they just keep coming,” Father Mike said. Thailand, he explained, is a place where the sex trade flourishes. HIV/AIDS was first reported there in the mid-1980s, he said, but the government did nothing to address the virus until 1992. “They didn’t want to scare tourists in the center of the sex industry,” Father Mike said. Some young people are sold into the sex trade and others leave their parents to go into the cities and find work in the industry. The workers are young boys, girls, women and men. The number infected by HIV/AIDS is in the millions, but Father Mike said the number is leveling off due to better access to education about the virus. Relatives often drop off their sick family members at the Buddhist temple because they are ashamed of the disease.

At the temple, sometimes the patients get stronger, but oftentimes they die. Father Mike provides compassion, plays his guitar, sings to them, listens and prays with them.
“The experience enhances who I am,” he explained. “In service to others, I find out who I am.” And who he is has not changed much over the years, according to family and friends who have always known him to be compassionate.

Father Mike said his vocation really began while he was playing stickball in the church parking lot when he was growing up. He met priests like Father Dennis Hartnett and Father Robert Driscoll and thought their way of life might be something he’d like to experience in his own future, he said. His home parish was St. John the Evangelist in Binghamton and he would come to serve as associate pastor at St. Thomas Aquinas there when his father fell ill in the late 1970s. His brother Ted said he always knew Father Mike had a devout bent and that he gravitated to the church. He said his brother’s vocation was a “direct call” to serve.

The brothers are very close, having lost their younger brother some years ago. Ted Bassano lives in Pennsylvania and his grandchildren look forward to their uncle’s visits. “I may be older but he has my outmost admiration,” Ted said. “If I could be like anyone else in the world, it would be him.”
Although his compassion is boundless, Father Mike’s sense of humor and fun brews just under the surface. He’s got a passion for the theatre, especially Gilbert & Sullivan, and he goes to the movies every Monday in Thailand. Father Mike said he enjoys a cup of Dunkin Donuts coffee on his day off. “I’m just like everybody else,” he laughed.

Mary Peg Mathis would disagree with his statement. She works at Seton Catholic Central School in Binghamton and serves on the diocesan liturgy committee. She grew up with Father Mike and went to high school with him. They co-starred in many fine productions over the years, including the first musical at Seton Catholic. She remembers Father Mike’s visits with the school children in the parish when he served at St. Thomas Aquinas. He had a terrific time telling them stories about imaginary animals he called “bovorks,” Mathis said. “More than one little boy went home and told his parents he saw the bovorks,” she remembered. “All the kids would be outside and he’d tell them they just missed the bovork and it was hiding in the hedges. He told them they [the bovorks] ate salt out of his hands. They all wanted to get a look at one. He’s just really a lot of fun.”

Mathis is married and has four grown children. They all look forward to Father Mike’s visits. “When they know he’s coming, they change their schedules,” Mathis said. “He’s just a very Christian human being. He doesn’t find any task too lowly. He would do anything for you.” Anne Elacqua was in elementary school at St. Anthony’s in Utica when she met Father Mike. “He would walk outside and a flock of kids would come to him,” Elacqua said. “He always played the guitar — ‘Feliz Navidad’ and that silly chicken song.”

Elacqua came to see Father Mike when he spoke at Masses at St. Mary of Mt. Carmel recently. “He always celebrated a beautiful Mass,” she said. “I think when he decided to become a Maryknoll we all thought, ‘My God, how will we survive without him?’”

He visited with Father John Rose, pastor of St. Mary of Mt. Carmel/Blessed Sacrament, and also spoke at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in downtown Syracuse while he was in town this summer. At Masses, he told the story of Bunserp, a drug addict who suffered from AIDS and stayed at the hospice at the Buddhist temple. Bunserp made a simple gesture of massaging Father Mike’s hand and arm as if to thank him for treating him so kindly. He raised Father Mike’s hand and put it over his own head as if to receive a blessing, Father Mike said. Bunserp died days later losing a battle with tuberculosis which is common with those suffering from AIDS. Father Mike called Bunserp’s gesture a “gift of mutual compassion,” something he feels knows no barriers such as language, dress or religion.

“Michael has always been very compassionate,” said Father Rose, who was in the seminary with him. “He has always been a man of deep prayer and reflection. He is so spiritually real and energizing that people are very responsive to him. He glows — and there are no rough edges.”
Father James Lang, vicar for parishes in the diocese, was also a student with Father Mike. With complete seriousness, Father Lang said, “Let me see, how do I describe a saint?” when asked about his old friend. All the saintly descriptions aside, Father Mike is doing what comes to him naturally: reaching out to others and demonstrating Jesus’ love and compassion. His work may lead him to yet another new home within the next year. He recently wrote upon his return to Thailand, “When I came home to the States I felt a movement of the Spirit to take on a new mission journey to Africa, possibly Tanzania continuing to be among people suffering with AIDS or whatever the needs may be. There may be an upcoming assignment for me to Africa sometime in the year 2007 by our Superior General John Sivalon and the General Council.”

But when he was here, Father Mike described his missionary experience this way: “Maybe I’ll go to Africa next — to dance,” he laughed. “My first experience in Chile was prophetic. My experience in Thailand is interior. Next, maybe I’ll just dance.”

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