Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love? Why This Gen-Xer Is a Priest | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | Ignatius Insight | Part Two | Part One
Even with this initial realization, I did not head straight to the Seminary. Instead I went off to begin pre-med studies at the University of Notre Dame, to sing in a band and live the life of a college student – football games, road trips and parties. I was not the greatest sinner, but neither was I really virtuous. I was engaged in an interior, sometimes turbulent struggle between my desire and this undeniable spark inside now tied with my awareness of His Heart. Though that spark continued to grow, I continued to drag my feet. Yet I would never miss Sunday Mass and would confess regularly. I continued to go to daily Mass, to pray my rosary, and began to read the spiritual classics. That first year I read The Imitation of Christ and Introduction to the Devout Life. The one or two minutes of silent prayer I gave the Lord grew to spending fifteen minutes before the Blessed Sacrament in our dorm chapel downstairs. Yet that night I could be crooning tunes at some party or club. There was something inconsistent between the messages of INXS and The Imitation of Christ, between singing Mick Jagger tunes and reading St. Francis de Sales even if they were both classic in their respective genre. I was trying to live two lives that the Lord slowly and patiently began to bring together and purify. Now as a priest, I realize the wisdom of our Lord in choosing fishermen to be his apostles. Fishermen know how to be patient. It took time to trust Him, to become vulnerable to His call and to let this call take hold of my heart.
A large part of forging a different life in the Lord was discovering the power of his mercy in confession. Through that Sacrament my walk with Him was deepened radically. I also resumed spiritual direction, but now with a more definite aim: Is Jesus calling me to be a priest? The call grew stronger. A feature of my prayer at the time was to ask Jesus for help – "If you want me to be a priest, please increase that desire and decrease the desire to pursue medicine." Over time, He did both. I remember vividly a moment during lab in the Stepan Chemistry building. I cannot remember the experiment, but I do remember the burner being on and wearing the gloves and goggles. Very strongly inside it dawned on me: "I don't want to be here anymore." In retrospect, I think I was hearing the Lord on a certain level with this deep attraction to being involved in His work of healing as a doctor, not of the body but of the soul.
The Holy Cross priests who lived in my dorm, Alumni Hall, were quite supportive of my interest in the priesthood. One of them told me that if I was thinking about becoming a priest, I should start studying philosophy. So without ever having taken a philosophy course, I switched out of the pre-med track and declared a philosophy major. I immediately fell in love with that study, and fortunately was introduced to the brilliance and enduring relevance of St. Thomas Aquinas by Ralph McInerny and Alasdair McIntyre among others. Looking back I realize how much intelligence was wasted on a dim undergraduate, but their thought did not fail to have an impact, especially in opening my eyes to the importance of showing the reasonability of the Christian faith.
By the middle of my junior year I declared a second major in theology after taking a seminar on St. Augustine, and was introduced to the world of the Church Fathers and quite by accident, over a dinner conversation, the theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar. I discovered that the Catholic Church contained untold riches to feed a hungry mind that would otherwise starve on the poor diet of contemporary American life or one of the many available versions of "Catholic-lite". This call to sacrificial love found in the Catholic faith radiated a mysterious and attractive beauty.
On the social scene, the playing in bars ceased and I devoted more time to studying, although I still took part in the social life of the campus with my friends. During Christmas break of senior year, I formally applied to begin studies for the diocesan priesthood back home. I graduated that May, and, after spending the summer working in a gang prevention program in south central Los Angeles in the wake of the Rodney King riots, entered the Seminary. I then began several years of seminary formation first in Oregon and then in Rome. Living in Rome instilled a sense of history, tradition, and especially apostolic succession. I saw how we stand on the shoulders of those believers who have gone before us. If not for the direct handing on of the Gospel by the apostles, whose unity is found in Peter, Christians could never be certain they have the story right. What struck me during those years in Rome was that Jesus' message of salvation is timeless and the Church is far wider and deeper than the categories of a single generation; therefore, she has the power to speak meaningfully to every generation and every generation must respond. After those years of study, prayer and formation, I finally came to that ontologically altering day in June of 1998.
The reasons for becoming a priest and the reasons for remaining a priest have not essentially changed over the past twelve years. It is love. But I have grown in a much deeper knowledge and appreciation of what true love entails with the passage of time. Even priests have a honeymoon period in ministry where the sheer newness, power and joy of priestly ministry is blinding – Mass, preaching, confessions, teaching, visiting the sick, offering counsel, etc. It's nothing less than absolutely incredible. I often tell young men considering the priesthood that one of the great things about being a parish priest, which was especially true as a pastor, is that I never had two days that were alike. When I looked at my daily calendar in the morning I knew it was only an inkling of what would actually transpire in the course of the day. Yet as time passes and the newness becomes routine, the priest inevitably comes to the actual work and true suffering in the adventure of love as he seeks to die to self.
This adventure of priestly love is founded upon the fundamental Christian reality of baptism and that original and universal vocation to holiness: allowing one's life to be penetrated by divine love so that one's human, earthly life begins to radiate the divine life. It is nothing less than to allow Jesus to live out His passion, death and resurrection in the heart of His priest. It is the only way a Christian becomes Christlike. There is no other way to become a part of this love without being shaped by the ultimate event of love of the Cross. The process often feels like death but what is actually happening is that the Lord is reconfiguring the Christian into His likeness thereby imparting His eternal life and power in us. And so, in the priesthood a man's entire self, weaknesses and faults included, are to be overtaken by divine love and transformed. A man does not become a priest because he is perfect; he becomes a priest so that Christ may perfect him. Often as a priest, it involves wrestling with the Lord like Jacob (Gen. 32:24) so that we will cease to cling to ourselves and surrender to His love.
The path of love for the priest consists of internalizing as his very own identity and living out the promises (celibacy, obedience and prayer) he makes and the consecration (to preach, to sanctify and to govern) he receives at ordination. The promises and the consecration are bonds of love that bind a priest's heart to the Heart of Jesus. In doing so, his vocation as a priest brings him to fulfillment as man by making him a husband and father on the supernatural level. By his ordination a priest is made into an image of the Bridegroom and thus brought into a spousal relationship with the Church, the Bride of Christ. Through this mystical relationship, a priest in a very real way becomes a husband and father, a spiritual father. His fatherhood perhaps becomes most evident when he baptizes and literally generates new spiritual life in a child and also in the Sacrament of Confession whereby he often brings people back from spiritual death.
The priest coming into his being a spiritual husband and father is concretely lived out in the promises he makes at ordination. Gen-Xers, who perhaps in their 20s were so willing to risk themselves in all sorts of dangerous things (Didn't Gen-Xers invent Xtreme sports?), are often afraid to risk themselves in the greatest adventure of making lifelong commitments in love. It is only in risking oneself in faithful commitment that one can find true love. Like all diocesan priests, I made lifelong promises of celibacy, obedience and prayer. These are the ties that bind a priest's heart to the one he loves, and allows that love to flow into his own heart to become a spiritual husband, father and physician of souls.
In these times, perhaps the greatest sign of contradiction is the priest's free promise of lifelong celibacy. This promise is counter cultural in any generation. Through this free promise we priests stake our entire lives on Jesus' resurrection. Either He is truly God and truly risen from the dead or no life is more absurd than ours. Because the stakes of this risk seem so high when compared to the prevailing value system, celibacy becomes a provocative sign in contemporary American culture, either admired or scorned, rarely ignored. Celibacy does not make for an easy life, but what life of true love in this world is easy? This promise, however, does have the power to create a deep, intimate life with God in the priest's heart. It cannot be lived at all without divine grace and it cannot be lived well without prayer and good human integration.
Because celibacy runs right through the heart of a man and his love, it also binds the priest in a special way to the Cross, the very place and event whereby Jesus Christ made the Church His Bride. Celibacy in a particular way makes absolutely real the holy sacrifice that is the life of a priest, that he himself becomes a living sacrifice. This promise to sacrifice the good and beauty of a wife and children of his own allows the priest to enter into the supernatural paternity and undivided availability to the Church in her needs. Both the joys and the desolation (which can feel overwhelming at times) flowing from this promise have convinced me even more of the soundness of this discipline in the Church and its intrinsic connection to the priesthood, since it characterized Jesus Christ's own priesthood. Thus we priests have moments of breathless exhilaration and of real pain, both of which are part of loving in this world. Those who know love see the celibate priest as one hopefully whose heart is on fire with love for God and for them, one who is risking his life for them.
Perhaps for some priests their promise of celibacy may bear the concrete face of the woman they loved and would have married. This love, when surrendered to God, perhaps becomes part of the great mystery of divine love that animates a priest's life and which understandably remains buried deep in his own heart known only to a few. The key, I believe, to live out the profound mystery of priestly love in celibacy is realizing that joy and meaning is not synonymous with being self-satisfied and getting what I want. Joy and meaning in this life, rather, come from desiring and receiving what the Lord wants for me and being poured out in love for the good and salvation of others out of love for Him.
Along with celibacy, the priest's promised of obedience is another bond of love between his heart and the Heart of Jesus. I would imagine that other priests would agree with me that when we put our hands into the hands of our bishop and promised obedience and respect to him and his successors, we had little idea what that would really mean. This particular promise takes a concrete form in a priest's assignments, that is, his collaboration with the bishop in his apostolic mission. But the place and the type of work are only the circumstances and situations of obedience, which can and do change at any time. In other words, being a priest is not about achievement or having a career in the eyes of the world. That is not to say some priests fall into this trap to the detriment of their own holiness and the good of the Church. The most important aspect of priestly obedience is the love with which he carries out his assignment.
My priest friends and I try to apply to ourselves the wise saying attributed to St. Francis de Sales, "Ask for no assignment; refuse no assignment." As a result, the assignments in my priestly life have been quite varied. Such is the adventure of love. The promise of obedience has taken me to places I otherwise would never have set foot, and into the lives of many incredible people I otherwise would have never have known. Although there have been plenty of times I wish I would have done better in a given assignment, I have yet to regret one. The Lord is so good that He even led me quietly back into the field of medicine. My doctoral thesis was on the problem of anxiety bringing me into the ambit of psychiatry, and a couple of years ago I gave a lecture on anxiety at the University of California, Irvine Medical Center.
The third bond of love of a priest's heart with the priestly Heart of Christ is the promise of prayer. Concretely we offer Holy Mass and pray the Liturgy of the Hours. But I have found that the internalizing and living out of the promises and consecration of ordination must be fueled by daily, vital contact in meditative prayer with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary, my guardian angel and the other angels and saints of Heaven. I know deep down in my heart that if I didn't pray everyday, I would not be able to persevere in this vocation. Prayer is the personal relationship that is cultivated with the Lord; prayer also deepens and intensifies it. We grow in His likeness by spending time, both quality and quantity, with Him – cheek to cheek as it were. The habit of prayer helps to keep me steady on the days when it doesn't feel so thrilling to be a priest and when the task of love is challenging my selfishness.
Having made those promises and received that priestly consecration in his heart, the priest then lives out his mission of preaching, sanctifying and governing in the Church. Even after the passing of years, and older priests who have served many more years will say the same, the adventure of love in these three aspects of our mission is breathtaking. The priest's life of divine love and the ensuing risks means his life will also be at the very center of the cosmic drama that is human life, the triumph and tragedy found in the confrontation between divine love and human freedom. The ordinary life of a priest is full of tragedy and triumph. It may involve giving counsel to the young unmarried woman who has just learned she is pregnant, bestowing mercy upon and helping to lead a penitent out of a long affair, or giving encouragement to the devout believer in her striving for greater holiness. There is tragedy as when a couple preparing for marriage runs away from the Church to a Justice-of-the-peace because they find the requirements of married love as taught by the Lord in the natural law and His Church too demanding for their tastes. There is also triumph, such as the one who, teetering on the edge of death, reconciles with God in the hospital ICU. After giving absolution and finishing the prayers for the dying with one such man who was unconscious, I bent down and whispered in his ear, "If Jesus comes for you, take His hand." And at that very moment the monitor above his head went to flat-line. Even amid the wailing beep of the monitor, the room was filled with peace, and victory. The ICU nurse came in with tears in her eyes and said, "He was just waiting for a priest." Most any priest could relate similar, and more incredible stories from his ministry.
After nearly twelve years, I can say that being a priest is great but it isn't easy. Married people tell me the same thing about their lives. My brothers who are married often tell me the easiest thing in the world is to get up in the morning and be a bad father. The same is true of spiritual fathers. The priest too is caught in the vissitudes of the drama of salvation going on in his own life. He is a man himself beset with weakness (1Cor. 2:3); the tragedy and triumph of the drama is going on within his life as well. Because of his weakness, the priest also has his painful encounters with the Risen Lord on the shore of Galilee. Like St. Peter, he winces at the healing blade of Jesus' words: "Do you love me? ... Feed my lambs ... Follow me" (Jn. 21:15-16,19).
All the aspects of a priest's life find their culmination in Holy Mass, Jesus' once for all saving action on Calvary brought into the here and now. In the drama of life the Eucharist is at the very core, Jesus' true presence, invisibly transforming the world. In the Mass, the priest finds strength and meaning when overwhelmed by life's tragedies and his apparent or real failure in that he can unite it all to the apparent failure of the Lord's crucifixion and death that brought salvation to the world. Along with prayer and the Mass I have derived great strength and encouragement from good priest friends – a band of brothers to share this same path and help each other along the way.
A call from Jesus coming through the events of an ordinary life is how I became a priest. Even after all this time, I'm still at a loss as to why He called me. I leave it to His own love, freedom and plan. But I am greatly encouraged that when he called his first priests, He didn't call those whom the world considered the best and brightest. They were exceptional in their ability to let the Lord's love and grace take hold of their hearts, and by the end of their lives could say like St. Paul, "It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me" (Gal. 2:20). In preparing this article, I recently went online and watched a 2007 rendition of Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love at a reunion concert of Van Halen. The tune musically still rocks. Now that they are well past middle age and onstage – Eddie is still without a shirt and David Lee Roth still in the leather pants (I'm sure it was part of the act) – I wonder if they ever found real love. I hope so. Even if they weren't talkin' 'bout it in that tune, I'm sure on some level they were searching for it – the sex, drugs and rock and roll only go so far. Sin never makes anyone happy. Love always does in the end. Ain't talkin' 'bout love? It's all about love. That is why this Gen-Xer is a Catholic priest.
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Letter of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI Proclaiming a Year for Priests on the 150th Anniversary of the "Dies Natalis" of the Curé of Ars | Pope Benedict XVI
The Blessed Virgin Mary's Role in the Celibate Priest's Spousal and Paternal Love | Fr. John Cihak
The Priest as Man, Husband, and Father | Fr. John Cihak
St. John Vianney's Pastoral Plan | Fr. John Cihak
Who Is A Priest? | Fr. Benedict Ashley, O.P.
Women and the Priesthood: A Theological Reflection | Jean Galot, S.J. | From Theology of the Priesthood
The Real Reason for the Vocation Crisis | Rev. Michael P. Orsi
Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
Clerical Celibacy: Concept and Method | Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler | From The Case for Clerical Celibacy
The Religion of Jesus | Blessed Columba Marmion | From Christ, The Ideal of the Priest
Balthasar and Anxiety: Methodological and Phenomenological Considerations | Fr. John Cihak
Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D., a priest of the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, works in the Vatican. He helped to start Quo Vadis Days camps promoting discernment and the priesthood at the high school level that now operate in several US dioceses. He has been a pastor and served in seminary formation.
He is the author of Balthasar and Anxiety (T&TClark, 2009).
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