Father Anthony Federico sat in the corner chair of Main Street Caffé on a sunny January afternoon — a perfect spot to see all who entered the cozy neighborhood coffee shop.
As customers filed in and out, a handful would notice the youthful priest and offer a smile, eliciting a wave and a quick, “Good to see you,” from Federico. Though only on the “job” for six months at St. Bridget of Sweden Parish, Federico has already become a part of the community.
“I get to be with people on the worst days of their lives; I get to be with people on the best days of their lives; and then I get to be with people for all (the middle days),” said Federico, 34, who became an ordained minister in the last year. “As a priest, I see the effect the Lord has on people’s lives through me. When I see (a person’s) face literally go from anguish to relief when I say something that touches that one deep wound in their heart — not because I said it but because Jesus speaks through priests — it’s in those moments I know I made the right choice.”
Listening to Federico speak about the priesthood, one would assume that his feet have been on this particular path all his life. In fact, his road to St. Bridget Parish can only be described as the one least taken, if ever at all.
A North Haven native, Federico comes from what he affectionately describes as “a big Italian family,” one for which the Catholic faith was important. In fact, even at a young age, some family members and friends suggested that Federico could one day be a priest.
He had other plans.
“I put that as far away as possible,” recalls Federico, with a laugh. “I even lived my life in such a way as to avoid becoming a priest.”
Setting off to Providence College in the early 2000s, Federico didn’t have a set design on what his future would look like. But as he began to think about a profession, he kept coming back to one thing — sports.
And if you like sports and live in Connecticut, one place in particular calls out.
Landing At ESPN
“Growing up … I thought about working for ESPN,” he said. “After college, I threw a resume at them, hoping something would stick.”
It did, and suddenly Federico found himself at the “worldwide leader in sports.” His initial job at ESPN was low-level, working in the company’s tape library that could more accurately be described as a giant warehouse filled with video of sports highlights. When a highlight was requested, it was Federico’s job to find the video and deliver it to the proper people.
Though the work was rather routine, it allowed Federico to meet several people throughout the ESPN company, and those connections ultimately helped him land a job with the digital media group as a content editor.
Assigned the late night shift, Federico would arrive at ESPN in the evening and watch all of the games, updating ESPN’s digital platform with real-time scores, highlights, and headlines. Normally, his workday would end around 3 or 4 a.m.
“I immediately got caught up in the fast paced work environment,” he said.
It should have been everything Federico could have asked for … but something was missing.
“I would lie in bed at night, staring at the ceiling, wondering, ‘Why am I not happy?’” Federico recalls.
To fill this mysterious void, Federico decided to become more involved in the community. He began volunteering at a local nursing home on his days off, doing what he could for patients. Yet, rather than make Federico feel better, it made things worse.
“Instead of making that aching, longing feeling I had go away, it made it so much worse. I realized I felt so much better when I was at the nursing home than when I was at ESPN.”
If Federico were thinking about making a professional change, life was about to intervene, but in a most unkind fashion.
On February 17, 2012, Federico was at his post at ESPN, watching NBA games. One of the most anticipated was a match-up between the New York Knicks and the New Orleans Hornets, solely because of Jeremy Lin.
The rookie Chinese-American point guard — an unheralded Harvard University graduate who’d cracked the Knicks starting rotation only because of injuries to other players — had taken the league by storm. He was, simply put, the biggest story in all of sports.
Federico was paying close attention, not only because of the excitement surrounding Lin — the phenomenon was called “Linsanity” — but also because the Knicks were Federico’s favorite team and Lin had become his favorite player.
It was around 2:30 a.m. and Federico was about to put the finishing touches on an update chronicling Lin’s first bad performance of the season. It was late, and Federico slapped a headline on the story — “Chink in the Armor.”
“I wrote the headline — a common term of phrase, one I had written and others had so many times — at around 2:30 a.m.,” Federico recalls. “By 3 a.m., I was starting to get a sense of how this thing was going viral.”
Realizing how the headline was being interpreted, Federico became physically ill. He called his boss to explain what had happened, then went to his parents’ home at 4:30 a.m. for support.
“They said it would blow over and that we would get through it,” he remembers. “It didn’t.”
What happened next was a whirlwind. The headline, which was taken down almost immediately, became a national story. Though it was quickly turned to fodder for late night talk shows and “Saturday Night Live” skits, the reaction towards Federico online was anything but funny.
“It was a very lonely experience,” he said. “I felt so embarrassed. I felt so misunderstood. Anyone who knows me, anyone I worked with who knew me, knew that the racial slur people suggested I wrote, it’s not who I am. It was the furthest thing from my mind.”
“There was the most intense, acute amount of hatred directed at me from all over the world,” he continued. “I didn’t know it was possible for so many people to hate someone so violently for a misunderstanding.”
ESPN fired Federico a few days later, and the young man was left to deal with the ramifications of the ordeal. Not only was he confronted with the public spectacle of his mistake, but he also had to contend with the realities of losing a job.
“I had to file for unemployment, which I’d never had to do before. Since I couldn’t pay my rent, I had to find a new place to live,” he said.
“I had to deal with it every day,” he continued. “I can empathize with people who think about ending their lives.”
Yet, life would begin to turn for Federico after a few weeks, and it began with a gesture from Jeremy Lin himself.
Lin asked to meet Federico in New York for lunch one day, away from any cameras, and offered him support.
“He was so gracious to me,” explained Federico. “He just said he didn’t think there was (racist intent) in the headline. I am eternally grateful to him … that he took the time to take me out and console me.”
Around the same time, Federico began working for a sports technology company in Stamford, LiveClips, which was a few blocks away from the Basilica of St. John the Evangelist. On his lunch breaks, Federico would explore the city, and one day he happened upon the church while Mass was taking place.
At first, he just walked by. But eventually, he decided to go in. “I was hooked immediately,” he explained.
“The atmosphere of silence in the midst of our crazy, hectic lives, that’s what (hooked me),” Federico continued. “So many things legitimately clamor for our attention. At daily Mass, it’s an oasis of solitude. In church, the world waits.”
Each lunch break, Federico would go to Mass and eventually his co-workers, none of whom were Catholic, became curious and started attending service with him. Afterwards, they’d ask questions about the different rituals and scriptures, so Federico began brushing up on his Catholicism.
It’s when he began reading the Catechisms of the Church. It’s when he started thinking about becoming a priest.
“Something began to awaken inside of me,” he said.
Initially, Federico admits, he viewed the priesthood through the prism of “no,” as in no longer able to be married, have a family, or pursue a career outside the church. Eventually, he began to think of the clergy as a “yes” to “giving my life to God on behalf of everyone.”
Since then, there has been no turning back.
As for the controversy that nearly destroyed him, Federico now looks back on that as part of the journey, one he believes was destined to end with him as a priest.
“I think it was God’s plan for my life for a long time, and I spent a lot of time telling God to come up with another plan,” he said. “I believe we find our deepest happiness when we allow God’s will for our lives to (come to fruition). I would go through everything all over again if it meant becoming a priest.”