Cancer patient’s wish to become a priest coming true

How his suffering could impact his priesthood

Julie Filby
While fighting cancer, Peter Srsich told the Make-A-Wish Foundation of his dream of becoming a priest and to be blessed by then pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. The organization made that wish come true by arranging a private conversation for him with Benedict XVI May 30, 2013 at his general audience at St. Peter’s Square. The pope put his hand on Srsich’s chest to bless him. It was the exact location where the tumor had been. “I hadn’t mentioned where the tumor was,” Srsich said. He also had the opportunity to attend general audiences with Pope Francis last spring and attend the canonization of St. John Paul II in April while studying abroad in Rome for a semester through Regis University.

While fighting cancer, Peter Srsich told the Make-A-Wish Foundation of his dream of becoming a priest and to be blessed by then pontiff, Pope Benedict XVI. The organization made that wish come true by arranging a private conversation for him with Benedict XVI May 30, 2013 at his general audience at St. Peter’s Square. The pope put his hand on Srsich’s chest to bless him. It was the exact location where the tumor had been. “I hadn’t mentioned where the tumor was,” Srsich said. He also had the opportunity to attend general audiences with Pope Francis last spring and attend the canonization of St. John Paul II in April while studying abroad in Rome for a semester through Regis University.

While seminary rector Father Scott Traynor has described every man studying for the priesthood as a “mini miracle,” it may be particularly true of Peter Srsich. A little more than three years ago, Srsich, 20, began a fight for his life when he was diagnosed with cancer. Today he reports that he is healthy, happy and in his first year of priestly formation.

“If Peter had his way, he would have entered seminary earlier, but God had a different plan,” Archbishop Samuel Aquila wrote in a recent column.

When finishing his junior year at Mullen High School in May 2011, Srsich didn’t think much of it when he developed a cough. However, when the 6’-6” honor student, lacrosse player, Eagle Scout and Taekwondo black belt began to struggle with exhaustion and “trouble with day-to-day things,” he went for an X-ray. The X-ray revealed a softball-sized tumor in his chest—he had diffuse large B-cell lymphoma, a type of blood cancer.

Because the cancer was so aggressive, it was also treated aggressively, with seven rounds of chemo and 20 days of radiation. From July through November 2011, he spent 65 nights in Children’s Hospital in Aurora. He suffered pain so intense, he sank into depression.

Fast forward to today: a smile rarely left his face as he spent time with classmates on the campus of St. John Vianney Theological Seminary Dec. 3.

“My scans have remained clear and we’re two years out now, which is what they had given us as our timeframe we needed to hit,” Srsich told the Denver Catholic Register. “If (the cancer) was going to come back, doctors said it would come back within two years.”

Though he will continue with scans every six months, he is feeling 100 percent, he said, and doctors are “confident it’s not going to be problem in the future.”

When he was struggling physically, there were also moments when he struggled spiritually. During one of his hospital stays, when a friend from Mullen brought him the Eucharist, he was feeling particularly low and had lost interest in his faith.

“I just didn’t even want to see him right there, especially with the Eucharist,” Srsich recalled.

But when he offered the host and said “Body of Christ,” everything changed.

“Jesus came up to me,” Srsich said. “And he didn’t say everything’s going to be OK, he said he’s going to be with me.”

That moment of comfort and conversion, as well as the overall experience and suffering of dealing with cancer, have played a huge role in his spirituality, he said.

“It’s becoming more clear to me where Jesus was,” he said. “And how he can work through suffering.”

“We’re told (by society) suffering needs to be eradicated at all costs, but suffering brought us our redemption,” Srsich continued. “Suffering has a purpose.”

It’s a message he feels called to share, and “God willing,” if he’s ordained one day, it will influence his priesthood.

“Since we do all suffer,” he said, “it’s something people need to hear.”

Srsich described his first four months at St. John Vianney as “incredible.”

“I really love it,” he said. “Cutting distractions (through technology fasts), spending time in prayer and meditation, and living in community. It’s an incredible time to grow closer to Christ, and really helpful for me in understanding my own suffering in the light of Christ.”

Srsich asked for prayer for himself as well as his fellow first-year seminarians.

”It’s a long road,” he added.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.