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: The priesthood is more than just a job

Sign up for a digital subscription to Denver Catholic!

In October, the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Pan-Amazonian Region will be held at the Vatican. On the agenda: a discussion on the possibility of ordaining married men to the priesthood in that region, due to a particularly dire lack of vocations. The news has reawakened discussion on priestly celibacy in general, and whether the time has come to relax the requirement on a wider level. And so, I figured it was time to revisit the subject here, as well.

To set the tone, I’d like to begin my discussion with a very short quiz:

Q: Why does the Roman Catholic Church require lifelong celibacy for ordained priests?

  1. Because sex is bad, dirty and evil, and our priests should not defile themselves;
  2. Because we don’t want to have to support priests’ families out of collection funds;
  3. None of the above; or
  4. Both of the above.

The correct answer would be C, none of the above.

So why, then? Why on earth would these men have to give up the possibility of marriage and children, just because they want to serve God as priests?

Priestly celibacy is a discipline of the Church, not a doctrine. It could change. The rule has already been relaxed in relation to married Episcopalian priests who convert to Catholicism. In this era of widespread priest shortages, and even wider-spread scandals, should we consider expanding that exemption, and remove the requirement of priestly celibacy entirely? Wouldn’t a married priesthood encourage more men, and perhaps healthier men, to respond to the call of God?

Perhaps. But at what cost?

Discussions about the elimination of priestly celibacy are not new. They’ve been around as long as priestly celibacy itself. One of the periods of particularly spirited discussion on the subject was in the late 1960’s. In response, Pope Paul VI wrote an encyclical entitled Sacerdotalis Caelibatus. In it, he explained the reasons for the Church’s long history of priestly celibacy, and he enumerated three “significances,” or reasons, for the tradition:

Christological: The priesthood isn’t just a job. It is a state of being. It encompasses his entire existence. It places a mark on his soul — a mark that will follow him into eternity. The priest is ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by a bishop, who was ordained by another bishop, in an unbroken chain that goes clear back to the apostles. And through that sacramental ordination, and the power and grace it conveys, the priest stands in persona Christi —  in the person of Christ. He has the power to consecrate the Eucharist — to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. He can forgive sins.  And so, standing in the person of Christ, the priest seeks to be like him in all things. He imitates Christ’s life, which includes Christ’s celibacy.

But, you say, Christ also had a beard. Does the priest have to imitate that, too? How far do we have to take this whole imitation thing? Well, the question we must ask is: What was integral to Christ’s ministry? Was celibacy integral? What would it look like if Christ had married and had children? He would have had to work to support them. He would have had to provide them a home.  No iterate preaching, moving from town to town. Jesus was not going to be an absentee husband and father. It was the freedom of celibacy that allowed him to give himself totally to the service of the Father and the Father’s children. So yes, I’d say it was integral. The beard, not so much.

Ecclesiological:  This basically means it is about the Church. Our understanding of a priest is not that he’s a single guy, a bachelor. He, like Christ, is in fact “married” to the Church. You’ve heard all that talk about how the Church is the “bride of Christ.” We really believe that. And the priest, standing in persona Christi, likewise becomes the Bridegroom, giving his life for the Church, and especially for the part of the Church he serves. He doesn’t just offer his “workday” to us, the flock.  He offers his life. He serves us as a husband serves his wife. (And we the faithful, as good “wives”, should likewise be going out of our way to love and care for our priests.)  His attention and affections are not divided between his bride, the Church, and an earthly bride and family. He has far greater freedom than a married man — freedom to not only serve his flock, but to pray and meditate and to grow closer to the Christ whom he represents on this earth. Which then prepares him for further service to the flock.

Eschatological: This means it’s about the next life. Remember my last column, about the Poor Clare Sisters who make the radical choice to live this life as if were already eternal life, focusing only on Christ? Well, priests participate in that too. Scripture says that, in Heaven, we will neither marry nor be given in marriage. (Mt 22:30) Priests and consecrated religious foreshadow that here, reminding us that everything that happens in this life is just a prelude to the life to come.

And so, for all of these reasons, I oppose the wholesale elimination of the requirement of priestly celibacy. I realize that we already have exceptions. I know several of those “exceptions,” and I think they are wonderful people and wonderful priests. But I think they would acknowledge the difference between the exception and the rule, and that the loss of priestly celibacy would change our understanding of the character and charism of the priesthood. The priesthood would be increasingly perceived as just another career choice — one to be entered and left at will.

And whatever the priesthood may be, it is definitely not just another job.

Featured image by Josh Applegate on Unsplash