Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love? Why This Gen-Xer Is a Priest | Fr. John Cihak, S.T.D. | Ignatius InsightAin'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. Th¸rˇse'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.

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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• Priest as Pastor, Servant and Shepherd | Fr. James McCarthy Priestly Vocations in America: A Look At the Numbers | Jeff Ziegler
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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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