Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love? Why This Gen-Xer Is a Priest | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | Ignatius Insight
Winter 1989, downtown South Bend, Indiana. The night is snowy and crisp. Inside the bar, already humid and smoky, the guitarist lights his cigarette, takes a long, patient drag and wedges it among the strings in the head of his guitar. As the smoke drifts from his mouth he begins moving his fingers across the fret board, the distortion turned up to eleven. The opening riffs of Van Halen's "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love" crackle from the bending strings. Standing next to him, I watch his fingers glide effortlessly across the wood and steel. The toe of my boot taps to the chucky thumping as the bassist, my older brother, and the drummer make their entrances. With my forehead already sweaty from the lights and body heat of the room, I gather the lyrics in my head, press the microphone to my lips and begin navigating through the first verse. The crowd packed tightly into the small place begins pulsing with the beat. I feel the palpable rush from that invisible electricity between band and crowd beginning to fill the room. As the music crescendos to the refrain, I saunter over to my brother's side of the stage area where he is cuing the approaching vocal harmonies. He steps up to his microphone and we belt out, "Ain't talkin' 'bout love".
Nine years later in the Cathedral in Portland, Oregon, I lie prostrate, my forehead pressed into the cool marble floor. The smell of incense and burning candles mingles with the warm June air imbuing it with a holy fragrance. The tightly packed church, imploring the intercession of the angels and saints of Heaven, chants the litany of the saints for us who are about to be ordained priests. The invisible and peaceful presence of grace fills the church. After the examination the Archbishop, a successor to the apostles, lays his hands on each of our heads and pours the scented chrism on our hands.
I shake my head a little sheepishly whenever I compare the two scenes in my mind. The black trench coat remains, but the faded jeans, leather boots and concert-T-cut-into-a-tank-top have been traded in for a Roman collar, a shorter haircut and more sensible footwear. I still enjoy rock music, yet now my heart is much more taken by the beautiful simplicity of Gregorian chant and rich texture of Renaissance polyphony. The gig hustling and musical thrill seeking were traded in many years ago for something else, something infinitely better and greater – a pearl of great, great price. I am a Catholic priest.
In this Year for Priests, I have been asked to share something of my own vocation story explaining why a guy of the so-called Generation X would become a Catholic priest. Why would a man of such a generation freely promise lifelong celibacy, obedience to God through his bishop, daily, committed prayer, and then have his life poured out in (hopefully) loving service; to people most of whom he has never met? To top it all off, he is also supposed to have great joy in doing it all? My response on that June day was simply a small echo of the millions of voices of men who have uttered this same 'Yes' for the past two millennia.
Yet a 'Yes' to the priesthood on the surface does not seem an attractive choice to a Gen-Xer. Many of my generation were born amid no-fault divorce and abortion-on-demand; we were all conceived under the ever expanding shadow of the Pill. Any of us could very easily have not been here. Many of my generation unfortunately were never born – the largest wave of casualties from the Revolution of '68. Many of those who survived until birth grew up in single parent households. Even if we were blessed with both a dad and mom at home, many came to understand from their parents that time pursuing a career or pleasure was more important than time with children. Untold hours were spent being entertained by TV and videogames during that rapid and seismic transition from pong to Nintendo.
Now that Generation X is moving into mid-life, perhaps we have seen the ways in which we have perpetuated the brokenness we inherited. Into whichever generation we are born, we and the world are affected by original and personal sin. Detached, distrustful, frightened and thus apathetic and confused are common descriptors of this generation that is especially terrified to risk itself in the vulnerability of true, life-long love. We lived through and observed so many failures of it.
Yet I have no other explanation as to why some Gen-Xers became Catholic priests other than love. The Christian life in general and the priesthood in particular is a life of radical love. Quite simply, it first involves discovering the love that God Himself is and is offering to us; learning to become vulnerable to it and allowing it to penetrate our hearts. Then with His help we can begin to love as He does. It is a personal, daily encounter and exchange of two hearts – one's own with the Heart of Jesus, or to use the vocabulary of theology, to grow in His likeness. The choice to become a priest, therefore, is immersed in a tremendous mystery of love and the reasons for choosing and remaining in this call lie deep in the heart. They often remain deeply personal and private, just as a husband may not be able or even want to explain publicly the reasons why he loves his wife so much. Yet something could certainly be said about some of the major influences and events that shaped this choice. On one level, only in the Catholic Church have I been able to find the fullness of God's revelation of Himself as absolute, total self-giving love. Through her Sacraments and teaching, through her visible unity, universality, apostolic succession and holiness, I am able to encounter the fullness of God's loving presence, a firm place for a Gen-Xer to stake his life in an otherwise chaotic, often disappointing and sometimes brutal world. Ain't talkin' 'bout love? That's about right for our secular culture, but for His Church it's all about love.
Looking back, I consider one of my greatest blessings that I was mercifully spared much of what my generation suffered. Born into a loving, believing and praying family, I am the second of eight children and grew up in the countryside just outside the university town of Corvallis, Oregon. My father, a life-long Catholic, spent a year in seminary during his first year of college, and my mother joined the Church from high Episcopalianism at age sixteen. The foundation of my vocation flowed from my parents living theirs. From an early age I learned from my parents' words and example that God is love (1Jn. 4:8), and to live for Jesus as a Catholic was to live a life of self-giving, and therefore necessarily, sacrificial love. This love, after penetrating the heart, pushes a person to give himself in imitation of this divine love: "Greater love no man has than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends" (Jn. 15:13). Divine love asks that one give his whole life in return. It is the closest thing that could be considered "commensurate" to the Lord's self-giving to us – totality in response to totality, even if ours is finite and His infinite.
The beauty of God's sacrificial love attracted me as a young boy. I saw this love in my father who sacrificed career advancement for years because it would have taken him away from spending time with his children. I saw this love in my mother who after putting my Dad through doctoral studies continued teaching in special education for years before becoming a full time stay-at-home mom. They loved the Lord, each other and truly loved us children. I came to understand later in life that I grew up in a marriage-centered family with parents who naturally created secure attachments in their children. I was close in age between two brothers, and I learned many lessons of love growing up with them, sharing a room, doing chores, fighting, playing football and basketball in the yard, and today we are the best of friends.
As I was growing up the thought of priesthood never really crossed my mind. I marvel at the priests I know who had a sense of being called from a very young age. I had no idea. Even as a kid, when my brothers and I played Mass, I did not have much of a desire to be the priest. That role was usually taken by my older brother, who is now an attorney and married with five children. From the age of about six, I was already convinced that I would be a family man and a doctor. Although I had no strong attraction to the priesthood, I did have from my very early years a strong desire to heal others. The discovery of the beauty of divine love in my parents and siblings helped prepare me in the early years of my life for the time when the Lord would call.
No one today would be surprised to read that I did not get this same message of radical, sacrificial love from the wider culture. Like many Gen-Xers, I came to consciousness somewhere in the chaos of the late 1970s where there was much moral and ecclesial confusion. The attempt to be "relevant" without establishing firm roots in the timeless truths of both nature and grace and in the long lived experience of the Church, yielded a "faith" in many of my peers that could not withstand the undertow of the materialism, relativism and pursuit of pleasure in the tide of contemporary American life. Why subscribe to the Christian faith if it is not any truer than much less demanding lifestyles? Because of the confusing times, clarity and tradition became premiums in life to stay anchored. I naturally gravitated toward what Pope Benedict XVI would later coin as the "hermeneutic of continuity" – the principle that looking attentively to the truth, goodness and beauty of the past can teach us how to discern and live the new circumstances of the present, a principle necessary not only for charting authentic liturgical renewal or the development of doctrine but also for the basic flourishing of human life and family. A strong force of continuity in my own young life of faith was Pope John Paul II, the only Pope I knew growing up. He was someone whom I recognized as trustworthy and who constantly offered fatherly guidance on how to live in this world as a follower of Jesus. Perhaps the strong impression this Pontiff left on the Catholics of Generation X is why the Gen-Xers who have become priests have garnered the term, "JPII Priests". If I had not had a hermeneutic of continuity operating in my faith life at home, I would not have discovered my life's mission, and probably would have drifted away from the Catholic faith without ever knowing what it truly was, as many of my peers did.
As the Zeitgeist seemed to be working its way more deeply into the broader culture, at home my brothers and I were fed a steady diet of Bible stories, lives of the saints, and prayer. We knew that Sunday Mass was non-negotiable so don't even ask. Dad and Mom always seemed to have a spiritual book at their bedside and we often prayed as a family. I cannot remember a time when I did not know how to pray the Rosary it was instilled at such a young age. I remember being impressed by St. Francis' radical life of poverty; Charles de Foucauld's dramatic conversion from playboy to ascetic and mystic; St. Damien of Molokai's heroic decision to volunteer to serve the lepers of Hawaii knowing it would mean certain death; St. John Bosco's efforts to win street boys to Christ assisted by his acrobatic talent and charismatic personality; St. Thèrése's little way of confidence and love; St. Maximilian Kolbe's courage to break rank at Auchwitz and take the place of man condemned to death; and St. John Vianney's simple dedication which resulted in the conversion of his rustic parish and ignited a spiritual renewal throughout France. These men and women, the saints, so diverse in character and background, did share something in common. They had allowed divine love to penetrate their own hearts and through this love became more like Christ – and then they changed the world around them. Ordinary people who became extraordinary in their love. They were heroic, and I wanted to be like them. Even though family life was not always perfect (and whose is?) my parents taught us that everybody is called to sanctity, and the saints are not simply to be admired but imitated.
Not only was I formed at home in an informal hagiographical catechesis and devotional life, my family also spent some time in the charismatic renewal in the 1970s. For several years while I was growing up, my family's spiritual routine was holy Mass on Sunday, a family rosary most days of the week and charismatic prayer meeting on Tuesday. The talks at the prayer meetings could not hold the attention of a young boy, but it still was enjoyable to sing and to witness the more extraordinary gifts of the Holy Spirit and the sincere dedication of regular people to God. I would not characterize myself now as a charismatic in that sense. St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis de Sales and the monastic tradition influence me much more in the spiritual life. Yet the charismatic renewal showed me the power of God the Holy Spirit at work, and perhaps more importantly provided me in the late 1970s with a faith-filled environment during a time of much desolation in the culture. Most of all, it was through this renewal that I came to know the priest who would help me to recognize my vocation to the priesthood.
An event in particular that had a great impact on my interior life happened when I was about fourteen or fifteen years old. One afternoon without much to do, I was browsing through my parents' bookcase and found a copy of the revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden. A strange book for a teenager to pick up, and to this day, I am not sure why I did. In any case, I sat down by myself and read it that afternoon. There were many passages beyond my grasp at the time, but the descriptions this mystic offered of the Lord's passion and death touched me deeply, and while reading and pondering, Jesus' personal love from the Cross hit me like lightening. I was moved to tears in gratitude for this love, and became aware of a Presence drawing near to my own heart that, in the intensity of love, was both terrifying and irresistible. Looking back, I think it was the first time I became aware of His Heart, and all I knew at this time is that He loved me and wanted me close to Him.
I remained convinced through high school that Jesus did not want me to be a priest. I had no desire to be a priest. I remained adamant about becoming a doctor and family man, and began preparing the way by working through the preparatory courses necessary for pre-med studies. My folks seemed pleased with my apparent plans, yet continued to encourage – without pressure – all the boys to consider the priesthood. But who listens to his parents in high school? Up until my senior year my life looked pretty normal from the outside. I did well in school, not so well on the swim team, better in music, performing a clarinet concerto with the local symphony. I also went to dances and dated. My brothers and I with a few friends played in a rock band at our high school's annual barbecue and dance. This perception of normalcy was evident at my ten-year high school reunion where, after showing up in a Roman collar, I was voted "Most Unlikely Career Choice" by my schoolmates. I'm sure they meant it as a complement. At times my Catholic faith was tested from within and without. Attending public high school in the mid 1980s, where many of my peers and teachers did not believe in a personal God or live as if He existed, I was often challenged by others about God, the Catholic Church and especially morality. I was compelled to examine and decide for myself if this Catholic faith I had received from my family was in fact the truth and if I was going to try to live by it. Fortunately, the like-minded support from my brothers and best friend helped me to weather the pressures and moral loneliness.
However "normal" my life appeared on the outside during high school, changes began to happen on the inside. I began to go to daily Mass. A Holy Cross priest, Father Charles Harris, who had been leading the local charismatic group, retired nearby my family home and would celebrate morning Mass early enough to allow a high school student to arrive at school before the first bell. I began to see the connection that love is not satisfied until it attains communion with the one loved, and that real communion was that for which every generation hungers and thirsts. I did not have the vocabulary to express it back then, but now I would say in the Mass I was able to encounter Jesus Himself, to enter into His sacrifice of love on Calvary, to witness Him become truly Present on the altar and give me His Body and Blood because He wanted to dwell within my soul – sacramental union with the God who loved me. A closer, more intimate union could not be conceived. And through the Mass I began to see the depth of His love, His desire is to have every human being, made in His image, to partake in His divine nature no matter how troubled or broken their lives may be.
During high school another priest also came into my life. Our parish received a new parochial vicar, Father John Kerns, who had only been ordained for a few years and whose joy and excitement in being a priest left a lasting impression. He took a fatherly interest in the Cihak boys, who for some time had been the primary altar boys in the parish, and was often a guest in our home. We would look forward to his visits as he was also a musician. A further step toward the vocation came in my senior year when my father suggested that I ask Father Harris to be my spiritual director. I had little idea what the term meant. He agreed nevertheless, and we began to meet monthly to talk about how to pray and meditate. I had no intention of changing my plans to be a doctor and family man, and even thought these meetings would help solidify those desires into a call to marriage. At the time I was accompanying a local physician familiar with my family on his rounds once per week.
In the winter of that year, Father Harris went in for a routine hip replacement surgery which was successful. I went to visit him a day or two after the surgery in his hospital room after finishing the rounds with the doctor for that week. He was cheerful and up in bed, and we had a pleasant conversation. I did not know at the time that it would be the last time we would speak. In the middle of the night my father woke up us boys up saying that Father Harris had suddenly and unexpectedly died. We all knelt and prayed the rosary together before going back to bed. One of my brothers and I served his funeral Mass. Something happened to me as I served that Mass. In the Gospel of John, St. Andrew and St. John's moment of the call was "about four in the afternoon" (Jn. 1:40). For me it was during that Mass. The call was not some flashing light on the road to Damascus with a voice rending the heavens (Acts 9:3), but more like the tiny whisper at Horeb (1Kgs. 19:12). The thought of being a priest came to mind and it flooded my heart with joy and peace, some sort of interior illumination, a tiny spark that appeared gently, quietly and undeniably.
Read Part Two of "Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love? Why This Gen-Xer Is a Priest"
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