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‘I will walk with you’: New priest shares journey through cancer to his vocation

When Father Peter Srsich first discerned a vocation to the priesthood, the road to get there seemed rather straight, with a few turns here and there. He never could have predicted the twists the Lord had in store for him; then again, who can?

Growing up, Father Srsich’s family attended Christ the King Parish in Evergreen, and he graduated from Mullen High School. His parents were of mixed Christian backgrounds — his dad was a cradle Catholic while his mom was a Methodist. As such, Father Srsich was baptized Methodist; however, after being exposed to both faith practices and “asking too many questions,” he joked, both he and his mom eventually entered the Catholic Church.

“Long story short, my mom came to read about the Eucharist and what the Eucharist is, and that blew her mind, and she was totally excited about it, loved it and she decided to convert,” Father Srsich said. “So she went through RCIA. At the same time, I was going through a first communion classes. So we came into the church together [around] the same time.”

While at Mullen, a young Srsich began to feel the call to the priesthood. His plan was to graduate from Mullen, enroll in St. John Vianney College Seminary in Minnesota and then transfer to St. John Vianney Seminary here in Denver. Meanwhile, during the summer between his junior and senior years of high school, Srsich began to develop a cough that wouldn’t go away.

“I went to the doctor over and over again, and they had different theories, different ideas,” Father Srsich said. “Eventually, one of the doctors thought it would be pneumonia or something, so I had to get a chest X-ray to check that out and see what they could see. And that was when they found the tumor.

’Everything changed’

Srsich continued: “I had a tumor about the size of a softball, they said, sitting in my chest between my rib cage and my lungs, and it actually collapsed my left lung and was pushing on my heart.”

The doctors weren’t sure if it was cancerous or not. However, after spending a week in the ICU and undergoing a series of tests, the worst was confirmed.

“We finally found out that it was a stage four non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, that was one tumor, and then a few other tumors in the blood system itself was the cancer cell,” Father Srsich explained. “It’s one of those things that you like a ton of bricks when you’re 16. Doc says you have cancer. But I had my faith, so I went into it with a good mindset, good desire to suffer well…and threw that out the window almost immediately when I started to really suffer.”

The cancer itself was not hard for Srsich to deal with, he said, mostly manifesting in the form of a bothersome cough. The real battle for him came with the chemotherapy and radiation treatments. To fight his cancer, Srsich would endure seven rounds of chemo and 21 days of radiation.

“The cancer didn’t really affect me very much, but the chemo was what threw me down and beat me up,” he recalled. “So as I’m going through that, the hair loss, the side effects, all of the stuff, that was about the time I decided that there is no God and everything I’ve learned about and believed was nonsense, which was right about the time God decided to break through.“

About a month into his treatment, Srsich was not faring well. He was depressed and felt rather hopeless, wondering why God would allow him to suffer like this. His faith had hit rock bottom; he found himself not even believing there was a God who loved him anymore. In the midst of these feelings, one of his classmates from Mullen brought the Blessed Sacrament to him in his hospital room. Though he didn’t feel very close to the Lord at this point, he agreed to receive communion, if for no other reason to appease his mom.

Father Srsich’s road to the priesthood was not what he expected it would be, but he has seen the Lord’s grace through it all “It’s just a beautiful life, a beautiful gift that I am very grateful for.” (Photo by Anya Semenoff/Denver Catholic)

“I knew it would make my mom feel better if she saw me receive, so I was like, ‘alright fine, I’ll receive communion.’ This classmate of mine held up the host and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God.’ And our Lord really showed himself, he revealed himself in a powerful way and he spoke into my heart, and I could definitely hear him in the in the depths of my heart,” Father Srsich said. “He said, ‘Peter, I know this is hard. I’m not going to take the suffering away from you, but I’m going to walk with you through it.

“It was kind of one of those moments where nothing had changed and everything had changed.”

From that moment on, the trials and tribulations that Srsich was experiencing took on an entirely new meaning, and in turn, completely transformed his relationship with Christ.

“Through it all, [the Lord] said he was going to walk with me through it, and that was exactly the experience,” he said. “I got to know him much better, to know him on the way to Calvary, to know him on the cross. My relationship with Christ was dramatically changed by that experience of walking with him.”

A wish granted

Through all of this, the Lord’s call for Srsich to the priesthood didn’t subside. Six months into his treatment, Srsich applied for the seminary.

“I went to Father Jim Crisman, who was the vocations director at the time, and I actually asked him for an application to the seminary while I was in the middle of treatment,” Father Srsich recalled with a laugh. “I was six foot six and weighed 155 pounds, and was bald and was sick. And he looked at me and was like, ‘You know, Peter? Not yet. You have to handle your physical health. You can’t battle cancer and discern a vocation at the same time. You have to take care of this first.’

“I think when he said that, it was both kind of a relief and a hurt, this sense of, ‘you don’t want me and I can’t come in, you’ve rejected me.’ But at the same time, as a 17-year-old kid at that time, I was like, ‘Well, I tried.’”

Srsich felt for a brief moment that maybe the priesthood was not what God was calling him to after all. But it was more willful denial than anything else; the Lord still had a plan for him, even if it wasn’t exactly what Srsich had envisioned.

Srsich remained in treatment at Children’s Hospital until March, when his cancer went into remission. He was also able to graduate from Mullen on time thanks to the generous teachers who would visit Srsich in the hospital to help him stay caught up in his studies. Around this same time, the Make-A-Wish Foundation, which helps to make wishes come true for children suffering from serious illness, asked Srsich if there was something he’d really like to do.

Srsich (right) pictured here receiving a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013. He was able to meet the Holy Father after completing his cancer treatments through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. (Photo courtesy of Father Srsich)

“I started thinking about that and, this is after that moment with Christ, and I thought I’d like to meet the Pope,” Srsich said.

His wish was granted. In June of that year, Make-A-Wish flew him and his family to Rome, where he received a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI after one of his Wednesday audiences.

“I had about maybe 30 seconds to a minute to talk to him, so I gave him the basic rundown of my story: ‘I had cancer, I want to be a priest. Can I have your blessing?’ So he gave me his blessing. It was a great, great gift to be able to actually meet the Holy Father to shake his hand and receive his blessing,” he said. “It was just a powerful experience of encountering the pope.”

Walking the road

While Srsich admitted that meeting the Holy Father wasn’t exactly a “heavens opened up” kind of moment for him, he said it did reaffirm him in the vocation that God was calling him to. Srsich had stayed in touch with Father Crisman through his treatment, and after he was well enough, he re-applied for seminary, and Father Crisman was happy to accept his application. Srsich attended Regis University of two years right out of high school to start prerequisites for a philosophy degree and eventually transferred to St. John Vianney.

“Throughout those two years at Regis, it was really beautiful because there was plenty of opportunities to flee from the vocation,” Father Srsich said. “But God was very good about continuing to call … even through those two years in college … just a very gentle, vocational calling that was like, ‘No, this is this is where you’re going to end up and it’s going to take a little longer. It’ll be a little different than you thought. But that’s the plan, and that’s where we’re going.’”

Srsich entered the spirituality year at St. John Vianney in August 2014. After seven years of rigorous formation and studies, he was at last ordained a priest in May earlier this year. He was assigned to Sts. Peter and Paul Parish in Wheat Ridge over the summer before leaving to continue his studies in Rome, where he is working toward a licentiate in Biblical Theology.

Despite the long, hard and at times seemingly impossible road it took for him to get here, Father Srsich has the utmost confidence the Lord has been with him at each juncture and will continue to be, walking alongside him, just as he promised he would in that hospital room all those years ago.

“It’s a great life being a priest. It’s one of those things that as you’re walking along the road towards it and going through the cancer, going into the seminary, not quite knowing what God’s going to do or how he’s going to do it. Being on this side of ordination, all of the trials, all the sufferings were worth it,” Father Srsich concluded. “It’s beautiful to start to see the ways that God was preparing me for this vocation, for this call, to receive the sacrament of service that’s not for me, [but] for the people of God. He’s been able to use these different moments throughout my life, these different experiences throughout my life.

“Even though I’ve only been a priest for five months, I’ve already gotten to see how he’s working and how he is using these graces that he gave me to bring his life to others. It’s just a beautiful life, a beautiful gift that I am very grateful for.”

Aaron Lambert
Aaron is the Managing Editor for the Denver Catholic.
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