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: Father and son, deacon and priest: Deacon dads and priest sons share special bond as both serve God’s people
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The bond between a father and son is one of God’s greatest designs; however, when father and son are both called to serve the Church as deacon and priest, that bond takes on a whole new meaning. Just ask these two dads and their sons, all of whom answered the call to serve the people of God at the altar.
Deacon Michael Magee serves at Our Lady of Loreto Parish in Foxfield, while his son Father Matthew Magee has worked as the priest secretary to Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila for the past several years and will soon be moved to a new assignment as parochial vicar at St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in Boulder. Deacon Darrell Nepil serves at Our Lady of Lourdes Parish in Denver, and his son, Father John Nepil, served at several parishes within the archdiocese before his current assignment as a professor at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary.
However different their journeys may have been, all four have something in common; mainly, that far from seeing their vocations as a reward from God, they have received them as an uncommon gift of grace that has blessed their families and individual relationships with each other abundantly, knowing that God acts in different ways to help us all get to Heaven.
Deacon Michael Magee was ordained in May 2009, at the end of Father Matt’s first year of seminary. Little did they know that God would use both of their callings to encourage each other along the journey.
Deacon Michael’s journey began when a man from his parish was ordained a deacon.
“I simply felt like God was calling me to do something more than I was doing at the present time,” he said. “I had been volunteering for a number of different things and was involved in some ministry activities and in the Knights of Columbus. And I thought the idea of being a deacon would be simply another activity for which I could volunteer.”
He didn’t know what it entailed at the time. In fact, he believed it was something a man could simply sign up for. To his surprise, the diaconate was more serious – and it required five years of formation and discernment. Yet he was so drawn to it, that he decided to do it anyway. But as he learned more about the nature of the diaconate during his formation, he became more nervous and unsure about whether God was really calling him to that vocation.
While his doubts remained all the way up to his ordination, Deacon Michael was faithful to his studies, trusting that God would lead him in the right path.
And God did — through the calling of his own son to the priesthood.
Deacon Michael didn’t realize that his son Matthew had paid close attention to his father’s faith journey and had found in it a light that gave him courage to discern the priesthood.
“Seeing my dad, as a father, growing in his relationship with the Lord was really influential for me on my own desire to follow Christ,” said Father Matt. “Looking at his courage to discern his own vocation and follow God’s plan in his life gave me the strength and courage to be open to the same thing in my life… He played a very important role, whether he knew it or not at the time, and whether I knew it or not at the time.”
On the other hand, Father Matt didn’t know that his dad was in turn encouraged by his own response to God’s calling.
“As I went through all those doubts, I watched Matthew’s journey in seminary and listened to how he was dealing with that in his life. And, as he just articulated very well, I also saw those same qualities in him,” Deacon Michael said. “Seeing a young man in his 20s willing to consider following God for the rest of his life also gave me the courage to continue on in my own journey, to see it through.”
God’s way of uplifting them in their vocations through each other’s journey is something they are very grateful for.
This unusual grace impacted Father Matt during his first Mass, when his dad, as deacon, approached him before the Gospel reading and asked for the traditional blessing by calling him “father.”
“It was a really special moment for me. He’s certainly my biological father and raised me. But then there’s something different when we’re at the altar in a clerical capacity — there’s a strange reversal of roles when we’re giving spiritual nourishment to the people — a father asks the new father for the blessing,” he said.
In both of their vocations, Deacon Michael and Father Matt see God’s Providence and the unique plan he has for all of us.
“We all have a vocation, even if it’s something we may not expect,” Deacon Michael concluded. “You may feel anxiety or worry about what it’s going to look like, but trust in God. He will take care of things as he always does.”
A bribe for Heaven
For Deacon Darell and Father John Nepil, the journey was different, but not any less providential.
While he grew up Catholic, Father John wasn’t interested in setting foot on any Church activity during his teenage years. His saving grace was perhaps what many parents have to do to get their teenagers to Church: bribe them.
“His mom and I basically bribed him to go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference,” Deacon Darell said with a laugh. “He didn’t want to go, but we’d heard so many good things about it, that we said, ‘We’re going to make this happen, whatever it takes.’”
So the Nepils came up with a creative idea.
“He owed me some money for a uniform that he had needed for a job in the summer. So, I said, ‘Listen, if you go to the Steubenville of the Rockies Conference, I’ll forgive your debt. And he did, he and his brother went. And John especially came back a different boy. He literally was converted with a lightning bolt at that retreat.”
To this day, Father John marks his conversion to Christ from the summer before his senior year in high school when he attended that conference.
As it happens with stories worth telling, the details of how much money he owed his father have varied over the years, and it’s a matter of debate among them, but Father John remembers it was close to $500.
“That’s subject to each one,” Father John said laughingly. “But what matters is that they offered to forgive my debt if I went to this retreat – it was money well spent.”
Besides this important event, Father John said that his dad influenced him in many ways by the simple fact of who he was as a father.
“My dad’s faith and moral character were a rock for me during some difficult teenage years,” he said. “He’s a great example of a man who was always faithful and lived a really outstanding moral life, but then as he deepened in love with Christ, he decided to give of himself in a more profound service.”
Besides his desire to serve and follow God, the seed that would eventually lead Deacon Darell to the diaconate was planted by a coworker, who would also take holy orders: Deacon Joe Donohoe.
“One day he said to me, ‘You should be a deacon.’ And, of course, I laughed at him and said, ‘I don’t have time for that. My life is too busy.’ But it only took him to suggest it for the idea to keep coming back to my head, and God kept nudging me. Eventually I decided I really wanted to do that,” Deacon Darell said.
The ability to share at the altar during the Mass has deepened the natural relationship of father and son and given Deacon Darell and Father John new opportunities to grow closer to God.
One of the most meaningful times came when Deacon Darell had a massive stroke in 2018. While he was in the hospital, Father John was able to visit and celebrate Mass at his bed and pray the rosary with him every day, as he had come back from Rome and was working on his dissertation.
“It was probably the most privileged and intimate time I’ve ever had with my father,” Father John said. “It was an amazing gift that really changed our relationship.”
“I feel like that’s a huge reason why I healed and why I am here today,” Deacon Darell added.
“It’s a real gift to have my dad as a deacon and a brother. It’s a tremendous honor. It’s one of the great joys of my life.” Father John concluded. “That’s really what has bonded our relationship together: the sheer desire to serve Jesus, especially in holy orders.”