by Kathryn Lieder
“God is neither the lover nor the beloved, but the love in between,” Mike Sacco shared during his recent Agape Latte talk in Hillside Cafe on Tuesday, March 15.
As the director of the Boston College Center for Student Formation, Michael Sacco is a familiar mentor to many around campus through his talks on Freshman Orientation, Halftime, and Jamaica Magis. His job is centers on helping cushion the often rocky transition period that college students inevitably encounter, and Sacco’s talk focused on how he dealt with his own personal transitions throughout his life.
Entitled “Surviving Game Over,” his talk looked at transitions throughout his own life as opportunities to give in and succumb to the apparent “game over” message, but at the same time as opportunities to decide to let God in to heal and “reset the game” through love, faith, and a change in perspective.
From the age of five, when his father abandoned his family, Sacco knew that he didn’t come from a “cookie cutter” family. He spent his childhood years shameful of his family’s reliance on local food banks to put food on the table. “I knew my life wasn’t on script,” he remarked. However, the circumstances of his childhood years in Columbus, OH only made him more ambitious to strive for success in all aspects of his life.
He attended a small Jesuit high school and recalled that he spent his high school years going through the motions, “doing everything you were supposed to do.”
“Most of my energy was dedicated to trying to package myself to be successful,” Sacco shared. He drew the analogy to a video game, stating, “I navigated myself through high school, college, and graduate school.” However, he admitted, “So few of my energies were dedicated towards real, authentic friendships and relationships.”
By the spring of his sophomore year of graduate school, at age 23, he was at a point where he seemed to be “winning the game,” but suddenly “the game froze” upon receiving a phone call from his mom, when she told him that she had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.
While he decided to accept the job he was offered as a Resident Director at BC, it wasn’t an easy choice, because he knew he would be going home to Columbus every three weeks to be with his mom. But to make this painful transition even harder, he kept everything he was going through a secret to all of his friends and co-workers at BC.
His anger and frustration led him to shut God out of his life, until one night at 2 A.M. while he was home sitting beside his mom, who was on an oxygen tank, he returned to God in prayer. As he asked God what He wanted from him, Sacco experienced an “affective reaction,” being overcome by a comfort that conveyed, This is going to happen and you’re going to be okay.”
He held up a large piece of white paper, on which he’d drawn a triangle, with a label at each edge, portraying the three aspects of his life where he finds God. At one edge was tradition and prayer, at another was nature, and at the third were human relationships and interactions.
During this incredibly challenging time in his life, he began to spend a lot of time in St. Mary’s Chapel. He recalls feeling particularly healed after a mass said by Fr. Michael Himes, S.J., in 1996. It was the time he spent attending masses and praying that was central to help him reorient his mindset, “reset the game,” and approach faith from a new direction.
“God is a verb, the energy that is peace, that is love,” but to truly feel this God, he shared, “ You need to be vulnerable, to be authentic.”
Even as he was uncovering the greatness of this God of active love and compassion in the midst of the suffering and pain he experienced over his mother’s passing, he again found himself wrapped up in a game, trying to follow “some kind of script,” when he was offered a prestigious administrative position at the University of Notre Dame.
He decided to take the job in the Dean’s Office in Student Conduct, admitting that, “In life, we run toward opportunity...not necessarily first asking if that opportunity is the right one for us [and for me] the desire wasn’t really there.”
Feeling isolated and unsatisfied with the job that he thought would bring him nothing but fulfillment and success, Sacco took up smoking.
Realizing he had reached a low, he soon began to escape to a meditation room on campus in his free time and returned to prayer as a way to reach out for help.
This call for help channeled the return of Fr. Terry Devino’s words to his mind, “What do you want? What do you really want? What do you really really want?” Sacco asked himself these important questions, central to discernment, and he found himself repeatedly returned to the idea of coming back to BC.
Upon returning to BC, he started to articulate desire and decision-making. He started saying yes to new opportunities that felt right, including taking on leadership roles with Kairos, Halftime, Jamaica Magis. “I didn’t quit the game...I changed the game,” he said.
He was able to “get off the script” by accepting the job he was offered with the Intersections project, a program in the Office of University Mission and Ministry, which offers seminars, retreats, and international immersion trips, all focused on helping students through the challenges accompanying transition and discernment.
“It was by failing and starting to work on my relationship with God that I started to carve out this new goal,” he shared. Sacco emphasized that in order to grow into an adult in one’s faith and love, one must be willing to be vulnerable and take risks. “It’s this energy that life is all about,” he remarked.
He reflected on his work with students at BC, emphasizing, “There’s a difference between listening and waiting to talk...and I try to position my affect as there’s nothing that you can tell me that’ll make me feel like I won’t stay here and want to help you.”