Calling All Callings
When Father John Cihak went to his public-high-school reunion, he showed up in his clerical garb. Since most there didn't have an inkling he had become a priest, he says with a chuckle that he got the “least-likely-career award.”
“I love making people think about God,” Father Cihak, 34, says today from Mount Angel Seminary in Oregon, where, as director of human formation, he's helped turn the institution around from its once troubled ways. It's currently one of the country's largest seminaries, with 182 seminarians from 25 dioceses in the West.
With his characteristic pleasant voice that seems to sport a smile, he says he likes wearing his clerics to the store or restaurant. “I enjoy being a sign of Christ in the world,” he says. “When people look at me, they have to take a position about God.”
“Just being who we are and not being afraid about being a priest in public, a priest in the marketplace — that helps further the message of the Gospel,” he points out. “It's often outside our comfort zone to do that. Sometimes it's tiring to be in the fishbowl. But it is something I enjoy.”
Father Cihak (pronounced SY-ack) didn't set out to be a priest from the getgo. From age 6, he aspired to be a doctor and head a family. The second of eight children, he grew up “in a very loving, nurturing family,” he says. “My parents always encouraged us to see what the Lord wanted. They gave a great example of their faith. We prayed the family rosary together.”
Things started shifting during his senior year of high school, where, as he puts it, “most of my energy went into music.” A clarinetist with a range of musical interests, he and three of his younger brothers played in a rock band they called Corvallis Calling. (He still plays the clarinet and enjoys singing, especially during Mass.)
But a calling of another sort arrived senior year. He began attending the daily Mass of Holy Cross priest Father Charles Harris, a close friend of the family who gave him spiritual direction. When Father Harris died suddenly, a chain of events was set in motion.
“It was during serving his funeral Mass that the first spark of a vocation of being a priest came,” Father Cihak says. He describes it as an interior illumination accompanied by joy and peace.
At the University of Notre Dame he focused on pre-med studies, praying for vocational discernment as he went about his business. But before long, his desire for medicine plummeted and the desire to become a priest lifted off. He changed to a double major of philosophy and theology.
At first the monastic life attracted him. But “what the Lord gave me was a strong desire to preach the Gospel and work with families and parochial life,” he says.
After ordination in 1998, he remained at North American College in Rome to finish his licentiate. Today he finds the Mount Angel Seminary environment directly connected to parish life.
“I see every seminarian here is going to be the pastor of souls,” he says. “I see the thousands of faces they're going to be a priest to, and I'm thinking of the parishioners and the kinds of priest and spiritual father they need.”
“There are times when I feel out of the loop because I'm not working with parishioners day in and day out,” he adds. “But by forming these guys, literally thousands and thousands of people are going to be affected.”
Yet Father Cihak affects parishioners directly, too. “One of the blessings in this assignment is that weekends I'm always assigned to a parish,” he says.
For two years he's been at the large suburban parish of St. John the Baptist in Milwaukie, Ore. He helps women heal from abortion working with Project Rachel and Rachel's Vineyard retreats. And now every summer he runs Quo Vadis Days, a camp for high-school boys considering a vocation.
“There's such a hunger in the parishioners for the truth,” he says. “They want to know what the Church teaches. And I consider it a great privilege, helping parishioners to connect with the truth in their own lives. That goes from the basic truths about a personal relationship with Jesus to the more difficult truths about contraception and same-sex unions.”
Father Cihak's homilies stir people to put their faith into action. “Recently when he had preached on the Church's teaching on the same-sex marriage issue that we're faced with here in Oregon,” says Father Todd Molinari, the pastor of St. John's, “a parishioner came after Mass, very enthusiastic, and asked what we can do as Catholics to respond to this in an organized way. They were definitely listening and appreciative.”
Lori Eckstine, a local coordinator of Project Rachael, marvels at the way Father Cihak “sacrifices his time to attend the retreats.” She recalls the turnaround for several severely traumatized women when Father Cihak got involved.
“His dedication to bring the compassion and mercy of God into these women's lives made profound changes,” Eckstine says. “They made remarkable progress. He brings the spiritual into their healing and helps them return to the sacraments.”
It was because of a “strong call from the Lord to do something” for the guys with potential vocations that Father Cihak teamed with Father Bill Dillard to start Little River Christian Camp. That's where high-school boys gather for Quo Vadis Days to talk about the priest-hood in a fun and relaxed setting. Last year, 50 teens interested in the priesthood came to the camp in the foothills of the Cascades.
Kipp Johnson, 18, looks forward to Quo Vadis again this June and has vivid memories of the three times he's already attended them with his brother Michael.
He's awed by the reverential way Father Cihak “holds the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ at Mass. That came through more than with any other priest that I ever celebrated a Mass with,” he says. “And going to confession to him was incredible. It was his whole sincerity and love. I felt I was in the presence of Jesus. It was a transforming experience.”
Father Cihak believes the key to increasing vocations in this country is the local parish priest's relationship with the young men in his parish.
“If they can look to their priest and see a real man and a real spiritual father, and if he invites them,” he says, “they will respond.”
“He's had an impact on a number of the altar boys in our parish,” says Father Molinari, who sees tremendous success in Quo Vadis Days. “There are two eighth-graders in our parish school; they're also altar boys. They came right out and said, ‘We're thinking about the priesthood.’”
Both Johnson brothers served Father Cihak's first Mass.
“Because of him both my sons would like to be priests,” Irene Johnson says. “I don't know if they're called, but they're definitely better people and practice the Catholic faith more fervently because of Father John.”
Amen to that.
Joseph Pronechen writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.