Once a ‘Miracle Baby,’ Now a Step Closer to Priesthood

Says New Deacon: ‘I Just Want to Introduce People to The One I Love’

DEDICATED TO GOD. Deacon Frank Cicero hugs Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix. Photo by Kevin Theriault

 

Frankie Cicero was born with all of his intestines outside of his body and given a 2% chance of survival. Seven surgeries saved his life, but created enough scar tissue for a lifetime of suffering.

The 31-year-old Diocese of Phoenix seminarian has known for a while that his purpose and his joy come in embracing the cross, which can be heavy — physically, emotionally and spiritually.

But his latest cross was particularly difficult to bear. After six years of study, Cicero was set to be ordained a transitional deacon, with two of his brother seminarians, on May 29 at Sts. Simon and Jude Cathedral in Phoenix, but he landed in the hospital the night before with another intestinal blockage.

“All I want is to give my life completely to God as a priest,” he said from his hospital bed, through the stupor of his pain medications, his voice unexpectedly faint for a young man so muscular and seemingly fit. “Humans strive for perfection, but it is only through our imperfections that we can be made perfect.”

Cicero was finally ordained June 19, not at the cathedral as originally planned, but at his home parish, St. Timothy’s in Mesa, Ariz., where people watched him grow up.

Dressed in a white alb, Cicero lay prostrate in the sanctuary where his father lay at rest for the last time. The elder Cicero died of cancer two years earlier, while his son was in seminary, and his casket rested on the very spot in front of the sanctuary during his funeral Mass where his soon-to-be priest son offered himself to God’s service.

The ordination was on Father’s Day, and emotions ran high, as Deacon Cicero wept before a congregation moved to tears right along with him.

“I wanted to give the Lord the best of me,” he said in a recent interview. “I desired to be in the best shape possible: mentally and spiritually on fire, on top of the mountain. I desired to run to the altar. But the Lord wanted me to crawl. Why? Because I would know it was only by the Lord that I got to that place. It was only by me being completely broken — physically, emotionally and spiritually. Only then could I truly give the Lord the imperfect gift of my life. He didn’t want a perfect gift. He just wanted me, and I’m imperfect.”

When Cicero was born so fragile and sick, his mother called her cousin, who is a priest, and together they dedicated the boy’s life to the Lord.

At 5 years old, Frankie understood God had a plan for his life as he looked around at his fellow “miracle babies” during a party hosted by the hospital for children who had been born with a very low chance of survival.

But the path would not be straight. Cicero left the faith when he was in high school, angry at God because his father’s addiction to drugs had destroyed his family.

“I began living a life of continually medicating myself with whatever I could so I wouldn’t feel the reality of how broken I was,” the deacon explained.

After graduation, his life consisted of drugs, promiscuity and 20-hour work days, including a bartending job in a popular nightclub in an upscale suburb of Phoenix. 

But his life changed when, one day, a customer told him how lucky he was.

“I thought in my heart, ‘I have everything that the world says brings me happiness. I have drugs, alcohol, women, a ton of money. And yet I’m lonely, I’m broken, and I hate who I am.’ That was the first moment in six years that I said something to the Lord. I said in my heart, ‘Okay, Lord, what do you want? I’m back.’”

His journey back to God led him all the way to seminary, and then the real fight began.

“The Lord has given me a lot of opportunities where he whispers in my heart, ‘Do you want to leave me?’ And I say, ‘Yeah, I want to leave you. I don’t want to do this anymore.’ I’ve wanted to quit so many times. It’s only then I can actually say, ‘No, Lord, I love you. I’m going to stay. I’ll stay for you.’ Only love could make me stay.”

Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix said Deacon Cicero has learned to view his lifelong health problems “within the horizon of divine Providence.”

“Frankie’s unique journey to ordained ministry, with its rich share in the cross, offers inspiration to many,” said Bishop Olmsted, who sent Cicero to St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.

“One of the amazing things is that many of (our seminarians) have faced great suffering and sorrows during their years of formation. Because nearly all of them have accepted these in faith, many fruits have come for them individually, while also being an inspiration and lesson for their brothers,” the bishop said.

Bishop Olmsted said it is easy for the comforts available in modern society to lull people into thinking they can eliminate suffering. “In so doing, how can we ever understand the cross and its power to teach us about love?”

Cicero tries to view his frequent hospitalizations in light of Jesus’ agony in the garden.

“I know all the pain, what I will have to go through, every poke, every needle, every tear, every feeling that’s going to happen to me, and I look at the Lord, and I say, ‘I don’t want to go, but if this is what you are asking, not my will but your will be done.’ The Lord is offering me the invitation to suffer with him or without him. It’s my choice. Through his grace, I am able to say Yes. My cross, my hospitalization begins to be alive with meaning, and I then can go in peace.”

Deacon Cicero knows God has a plan for everything that happens in his life.

“I might have only gone to the hospital for one person to come in and see me there and have it transform his or her life. And if the Lord said to me in advance, ‘Will you suffer for that one person? Just one?’ I would say Yes.”

He adds that it is not for him to worry about how his medical problems will affect his priesthood.

“I don’t believe my life will fully make sense until I am able to say, ‘This is my body given up for you.’ And then I will never, ever stop being a priest, whether I am at the parish or in the hospital. I will always offer my life in union with the life of Jesus, in union with the one sacrifice on the cross, for the salvation of the entire world. I want to be healthy. I want to give myself in the way I want to, but it’s not my priesthood, right? The Lord is inviting me to share in his priesthood.”

Frankie’s mother, Olga Cicero, says the sacraments, prayer, sacrificial love and trust in the Lord brought the family through extremely hard times and gave the Ciceros the great gift of a priestly vocation.

Mrs. Cicero, who witnessed her husband make peace with her son just before his death, said, “I have to give the burdens to the Lord and his Blessed Mother because I cannot do it on my own. My hope in the Lord encourages me to stand by Frankie and keep persevering.”

Deacon Cicero’s ordination to the priesthood is scheduled for June 3, 2017, following one more year of seminary.

Says the future priest: “I just want to introduce people to the One I love. That’s it.”

Sherry Boas writes

from Arizona.