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Why I am a Priest Today

Fr. John Cioppa, M.M.

People often ask, “Why did you become a priest?” I am glad they ask because it forces me to think back at just what was the origin of my vocation. To begin with, the ground was ready. I am an American; however my parents were immigrants from Italy. They had a traditional solid faith rooted in the simple peasant life of Southern Italy. They brought that faith with them and communicated it very naturally to my two sisters and me. Our normal family life had religion built into it. It was part of the culture: weekly Mass, bi-weekly confession, Tuesday night novenas, the rosary, prayers at meals and Sunday school.

My family—not just my mother, father and sisters, but the extended family—was very close and highly valued relationships. There were great gatherings at holidays with plenty of food and good wine. Every Sunday was family day with the main focus being the noonday meal. I have wonderful memories of those days. I am sure that family life had much to do with my vocation, but probably the most influential person to foster my vocation was my grandmother who lived with us. She was a gentle, warm caring woman whose love and affection I can still feel today. My mother and father worked every day. My mother was a seamstress and my father worked on the railroad.

Most of my younger years were spent under the watchful eye of my grandmother. She had a deep spirituality, went to Mass every day and knelt down at home to pray the rosary. As soon as I could walk, she dragged me along with her to church. That was my first introduction to Liturgy. I can still remember the grandeur and formality of the Holy Week ceremonies: the statues covered in purple, the black solemn vestments on Good Friday and visiting seven churches on Holy Thursday. The huge Easter candle, the sounds, smells and the visual imagery of the incense, flowers, holy water and Latin chants all made deep impressions on me. The local priests were good men, kind but very formal. As a youngster I never did get to know them well. But the image of the priest as the leader of the liturgy stayed with me. I liked what they did.

The Christian Brothers that taught me in high school had the greater influence on me personally. Although my parents couldn't afford to send us to Catholic primary schools, they made sure we went to Catholic high schools. I went to a military school run by the La Salle Brothers. Their community life, dedication to teaching and deep interest in their students impressed me. I wasn't particularly religious, but I did attend prayer activities in school and went to Mass every day during Lent. I enjoyed school life and got to know the Brothers quite well. Some became good friends and even came to dinner at my home.

They used to talk to me about a religious vocation, but I had no interest at the time. They even invited me to spend a few days at their Novitiate. That was enjoyable, but I was more interested in a career in engineering or scientific research. I was a good student and enjoyed practical issues rather than theory. I enjoyed working with my hands: gardening, carpentry and building. At the time I was open to a lot of possibilities but religious life was not one of them.

Somewhere along the line, however, a change occurred. I am not sure just when, but one day a Maryknoll priest came to talk to us about foreign missions. The romance of going overseas to serve the poor sparked something in me. I began to read more and more about overseas missions. The idea really grabbed me. To live, serve and pray in a foreign country presented a challenge. I figured I could use my mind, body and talents and maybe even do some good. I remember thinking; I can save my soul and possibly help to save a few others.

?That was the beginning of serious thinking about the priesthood. I still hadn't made up my mind and talked the matter over with one of the Brothers. He encouraged me to maintain contact with Maryknoll. They sent me books, News notes and the Maryknoll magazine. My interest deepened, as did my decision to give it a try. I never told my family or friends until March of my high school graduation year. I think they suspected but never said anything. They were pleased and supportive, but left me free to make my own decision. I remember my father saying to me, “Go, but if you don't like it come back. You are always welcomed.”Those words were to serve me well.

I finished high school on June 24th 1949 and on the 25th I boarded the train to begin 10 years of seminary formation before ordination. The first year was not easy. I was 17 years old and this was my first time away from home. I was homesick a good part of the time. The encouragement of my older sister who was studying in college at the time was a big help. Fortunately my fellow seminarians were a great bunch and we bonded quickly. I worked hard at studies, did well and enjoyed each year more and more. My class of over 100 seminarians became my new family. I often wonder what helped me through those seminary years. Grace was working, of course, but the friendship and support of our tight-knit community also played a big role.

On June 13, the feast of Pentecost 1959, I was ordained a priest. I was thrilled and my mother cried. On the next Sunday I said my first Mass in my home parish with all my family and friends present. They were thrilled too. On August 8 of the same year, I boarded a ship in San Francisco for my new mission assignment: Hong Kong. I arrived on September 12th and began the drama and love story of a new life and work among the people of Hong Kong. That part of the story is on going and still not complete. I have been in Hong Kong for most of 43 years, a time filled with successes and failures, smiles and tears, but years of great peace and joy.

As I look back over fifty plus years of study and mission life, I ask myself, “What was it that kept me going? What was my motivation?Why didn't I get married?”My mother commented one day that it was a good thing I didn't get married. I'm so fussy, she said, I would drive any woman crazy. She is probably right. Reflecting back over those 50 years, certainly the motivation that got me into Maryknoll would never have kept me in Maryknoll. In the 1950s the three most respected professions were the priesthood, medicine and law, in that order. As the son of first generation immigrant parents I know that professional image was something that attracted me. Vatican II and events in the world changed all of that, of course and that's when the challenge came.

It became pretty evident that you either had to have some spiritual depth or you were not going to make it. The 60s and 70s were tough years that really pushed you to the wall. You had better be clear about “who you were” or you would be swept away by the whirlwind of change that was affecting the world and the Church. The training and discipline of seminary years were a help. Study and reflection with friends were also helpful, but prayer and quiet time were bedrock. Looking back, I would say that what was true then is just as valid today. Prayer has to be an essential part of the life of a priest. I certainly don't pray today the way I did 50 years ago or even 25 years ago. I don't think the form is important. What is important is to take the time and do it. I guess I could confess that I have not been very successful, but I keep trying and that is important, too.

Back to the question we started with: Why am I a priest today? Besides the grace of God, I would say simply say “PEOPLE”. And that implies relationships. First there were the support and warmth of my parents and family. Being Italian helped. Then there were the many people who have walked part of the road with me. My classmates in the seminary, my colleagues with whom I have worked over the years and the many, many parishioners I have known and who have become my friends here in Hong Kong. All of the rhetoric about the changing ideals, new images and roles of the priest don't move me much. For me what really matters is friendship—with God and people.

 

 

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