From Darkness to Light: The Testimony of an Altar Boy

Anthony “Tony” Carosi

Learning to be a Good Catholic Boy

On March 7, 1960, I was born to Guido Luigi Carosi, and Mary Louise (Ruffo) Carosi at 49th and Lancaster Sts. in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.  My family was Italian-American and devoutly Roman Catholic.  Soon after my birth, I was baptized into the Church.  Our church, Our Lady of the Angels was the pride of the neighborhood.  Our community built their lives around that church, and my early years were to be no exception.

Roman Catholicism became a way of life for me.  The Archdiocese had allowed the Italian immigrants to finance the establishment of Our Lady of the Angels. along with all its extensions of ministry, on their own.  One of those ministries was a Catholic grade school that admitted only those of Italian descent, and in 1966 I enrolled as a first-grader.  The nuns called, the sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, served as the faculty.  The nuns strictly enforced firm discipline and we learned to live by a well-worn saying: “They are always right and you are always wrong.”  In second grade, I took the traditional Catholic sacrament of First Holy Communion.  I received Confirmation as a fourth-grader, and soon after, Penance—the confession of personal sins to the priest.

The school nuns were not by any means my only source of Catholic education.  My father taught us to faithfully attend church every Sunday morning and every Holy Day of Obligation.  With the Catholic Church playing such a prominent role in my family, it quickly became an object of fascination for me.  My older brother, Frank, and I loved to play church, and we could often be found setting up an altar in our bedroom and inviting the rest of the family to our Mass.  My Aunt Dorothy Adalgisa, helped me start a collection of Funeral Holy Cards, medals, and statues of the Roman Catholic Saints.  I also collected Mass Cards.  A Mass Card, essentially a modern day indulgence, was given to any person who paid money to have a Mass performed for a deceased loved one suffering in purgatory.  The church taught that some of the sins of that departed loved one would be pardoned through the Mass, inching that tormented soul closer to heaven.

Like every good Catholic, I believed that the church could sacramentally absolve people, dead or alive, of the guilt and punishment due for their sins.  The forgiveness of sins that was necessary to be in God’s favor came only through the Catholic Church.

In sixth grade, I became an altar boy at Our Lady of the Angels.  I took great pride in my new position, and dutifully executed my responsibilities to prepare the church altar, help the priest change into his ceremonial garments, and assist him in the Mass and other special services.  I vividly recall Via Crucis, the Way of the Cross, a ritual commemorating Jesus’ route to the crucifixion and ending with His resurrection.  During the ceremony, I would stand facing the priest, steadily holding a long-stemmed candle to illuminate his text.  As the priest’s chanting and the people’s responses droned on for what seemed to be an eternity, the hot, melting wax would run down the candlestick and drip onto my clenched hands.  Terrified of the possible consequences of complaining or even flinching at the pain, I would silently repeat over and over, “I want to be a good Catholic.”

The Feast of St. Gabriel

Although I devoutly revered the Roman Catholic Church, I distinctly remember glaring inconsistencies that betrayed all the ceremonial piety of the church.  Every year, early in June, Our Lady of the Angles celebrated the Feast of St. Gabriel as a fundraising festival.  The festival always started in the morning with the Italian Verdi Band playing music and marching around the streets of the neighborhood.  People would come out of their homes to join the festivities and would begin following the band, forming a long line.  Four life-size statues were propped high up on pedestals for all to see:  the Virgin Mary, Saint Emedio, Saint Nicolas, and Saint Gabriel—patron saint of the parish.  As the men marched the statues down the streets, the elderly would pin five, ten, and twenty-dollar bills onto the silk scarves that draped each statue’s neck.  Back at home that day, I would proudly display my entire statue collection on the porch wall of my row home for passers-by to admire.

Notwithstanding all the official pomp and circumstance surrounding the Feast of St. Gabriel, the very concept underlying the entire event was unbiblical.  The one command that the Roman Catholic Church conveniently eliminates from the Ten Commandments declares, “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above…Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: For I the LORD thy God am a jealous God.”[1]  But the inconsistencies did not stop with the idolatry of the festival.  The afternoon always took on a raucous party atmosphere generated by food, alcohol, dancing, gambling, carnival rides, and the grease pole.  In reality, it was hardly holy, religious fervor that motivated the events of that day.  As I look back, I can hardly believe I had a part in all of that.  If Christ was righteously angry with the temple money changers for greedily making God’s house a place of merchandise—“It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves[2]—certainly I and my church were just as guilty as those evil men that Christ drove out of the temple.

Difficulty and Turmoil

Living in the city of Philadelphia was not easy.  The constant racial tension between whites and blacks set boundary lines on all sides around my neighborhood.  Most of our community was lower, middle class, and could never have afforded to move away from the hostility.  Besides, Our Lady of the Angels was our source of unity and pride, and to move away from the church we had established was nearly unthinkable.

Notwithstanding the influence of Our Lady of the Angels, our community was sporadically transformed into a war zone, especially during the summer months.  Hurled bottles, fist fights, bat clubbings, stabbings, and even shootings were not unheard of, and caused public uneasiness and general unrest.  The Pagans, a motorcycle gang, made inroads into our neighborhood and only increased the frequency and severity of the riots.  Drug dealers openly hung out on our streets, making easy sales to teenagers.

The constant, in-your-face blatancy of it all, made a life of sin nearly impossible to escape.  All my early Catholic upbringing and education proved powerless to stem the rising tide of wickedness in my own heart.  When I reached my teenage years and started high school at St. Thomas Moore, I was quickly entrapped by the sins that were so prevalent in my environment and so appealing to my own lusts.  The Scriptures clearly explain exactly what I was experiencing, and even more sobering, where I was headed: “But every man is tempted when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed.  Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin, and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.”[3]

From Years of Pride to Years of Guilt

Like most teenagers, I wanted my independence.  While I was in high school, my cousin, George, gave me a great price on a 1966 black, four-door Caddy that was big as a boat and rode as smooth as anything.  With the keys to a ride like that in my pocket, I really thought I was something.  But as the Bible says, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall,”[4] and my pride was just asking for destruction.

That pride-driven fall came my senior year, as my grades dropped to an all-time low, and I was unsure if I was even going to graduate.  There was no chance of my going to college, not only because I disliked school, but also because we simply could never have afforded it.  Dad expected me to work and to help pay the bills.  I knew things would be different for me after high school and I was scared of the uncertain future that lay ahead of me.

I did graduate, and shortly after graduation, I started my first full-time job—a job I hated, feeling I did not belong.  I began to lose confidence and any remnant of self-esteem.  My slavery to sinful habits only served to further magnify my weakness, and I became very introverted.  I remember so many times sitting on my bed through the middle of the night crying, and telling myself how I hated this world and hated the way I was living my life.  I felt the profound weight of the awful burden of my sins and I wanted to change.  My inner turmoil became so obvious that my parents urged me to see a doctor, but I refused.  I wanted to work it out myself.

With nowhere else to turn, I started to go back to church at Our Lady of the Angels, but not just on Sundays.  Every day of the week, at 6:30 in the morning, I would go to Mass before making my way to work.  I wanted to get close to God and this was the only way I knew how.  Once again, I became a very devout Catholic, but to my great frustration, I still keenly felt the unrelenting weight of my sins.

God’s Word Brings Hope

Soon my trips to church became conscious acts of penance for the sins I had committed the night before.  There was a constant sense of emptiness in my soul, a void that needed to be filled.  I just wanted peace in my heart, and I knew there had to be more to life than the way I was living.  I was searching, yet not really knowing what I was looking for.

I found what I was looking for in an unlikely place.  I remember one day visiting my Aunt Adalgisa, who lived across the street.  It was May, which in the Roman Catholic calendar was the month of the Blessed Mother Mary.  Aunt Adalgisa was just ending a time of worship with the church ladies who gathered in her home to pray the rosaries.  I noticed a book under her Catholic statue of The Infant of Prague.  When I picked it up, I saw it was the Holy Bible.  Immediately I was curious, but my Aunt told me to put it back because it was not for me to read.  When I got home, I asked my mom if we had a Bible, to which she said, “Yes,” and gave it to me.  I looked up a familiar passage, Psalm 23.  How those beautiful words touched my heart.  I kept the Bible by my bed and continued to read the Psalms each night.

When I reached Psalm 38, I was unprepared for what I read, “O LORD rebuke me not in Thy wrath: Neither chasten me in Thy hot displeasure.  For Thine arrows stick fast in me, and Thy hand presseth me sore.  There is no soundness in my flesh because of Thine anger, neither is there any rest in my bones because of my sin.  For mine iniquities are gone over mine head as an heavy burden, they are too heavy for me.”[5]  These words cut into my soul like a knife.  My eyes began to fill up with tears as my heart became overwhelmed with “joy.”  I could not believe what I was reading—I was not alone!  It hit me that David had experienced exactly what I was experiencing and he had felt exactly how I felt.  I started to believe and trust that the Bible really was the Word of God, and what I read, I kept in my heart.

Soon, the thought began to torment me, “All these years growing up as a Catholic, and not once have I ever been encouraged to read the Bible – why?”  As that question plagued me, I started to drift away from the Church.  I began to realize that the Mass actually kept me from drawing closer to God with all its vain repetition.  The Bible, in contrast, gave me real hope and direction.  Paul’s message to the Romans was being worked out in my own heart: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”[6]

At the Cross

The Lord had shown me that I was the greatest sinner I knew; the Lord had planted the seed and I was ripe for salvation.  One day, months after my encounter with David in Psalm 38, I was playing basketball at the neighborhood playground.  While I was playing, I noticed my cousin, George, and Joe Duffy (who would become a close friend in Christ) on the sidelines, both trying to get my attention.  They were so distracting that I left playing the game before it was over.  As soon as I walked over to them, they confronted me, right there, with my need of salvation.  They told me that I needed to be born again.  They said that if I did not repent of my sins I would perish and go to hell, but that if I would believe that Jesus Christ died on the cross for my sins, I would have eternal life.  What they said about believing in Christ and admitting to being a sinner was nothing new to me, but I had never thought about where I would spend eternity.  Stung by their words, I arrogantly responded, “No one knows where they are going after this life, so what gives you the right to say otherwise?” They shared two Scripture verses with me, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life,”[7] and, “That ye may know that ye have eternal life.”[8]  When they had finished, they invited me out to their church.

A week or two later, I visited Berean Baptist Church with them and heard the Gospel preached for the first time, and how I loved it!  After the service, I rushed home knowing that I had to get before the Lord to pray.  When I got into my bedroom, immediately I dropped down to my knees and I began to cry out to the Lord for his help just as a son would cry to his father.  I confessed to Him how sinful I had been and how unworthy I was of Him even considering me.  I believed what the Scripture said, “without shedding of blood is no remission.[9]  I asked God to forgive me of my sin and to save my soul from the torments of hell.  I continued to pray for about an hour, expressing as best as I could my faith in Christ as my savior, and when I finished, I felt physically and mentally drained.

A New Morning, A New Life

The next morning when I awoke, there was a change.  I was different and I saw the world as different.  Everything clicked—like a light switch had been turned on in my darkened mind.  The eyes of my understanding were opened, and I knew Jesus Christ was my personal Savior—I was born again.  Once again, the Bible was proving itself in my own experience: “For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ;”[10]And ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”[11]  My heart was overwhelmed with joy because the burden of my sins was lifted.  I had finally found peace with God, a peace that truly passes all understanding, and a peace that I still know today.  Jesus Christ is the answer to life, as He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”[12]

Tony Carosi, after His Conversion

Tony Carosi

The Bible declares, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.”[13]  My life did indeed become new.  The Lord blessed in the days ahead.  He progressively purged many of the worldly things out of my life, and continues that work in me—only to make me a vessel fit to serve Him.  In the years that have followed, He has blessed me with a beautiful wife, Veronica, and two boys whom I love very much.  He has placed me in a Bible-believing, Christ-preaching church where my family and I have been able to grow.  Truly, the Lord is good and merciful.  Like the Psalmist, all I can end with is, “Praise ye the Lord!”[14]

[1] Exodus 20:4, 5

[2] Matthew 21:13

[3] James 1:14, 15

[4] Proverbs 16:18

[5] Psalm 38:1-4

[6] Romans 10:17

[7] John 3:16

[8] 1 John 5:3

[9] Hebrews 9:22

[10] 2Corinthians 4:6

[11] John 8:32

[12] John 14:6

[13] 2Corinthians 5:17

[14] Psalm 150:6