An Interview with Father John Celichowski

Updated: Jun 24, 2019

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: You are the dean of Vicariate V A, what does that mean?


Father John: The work of the dean is essentially to assist the Archbishop (Cardinal Cupich) and the Auxiliary Bishop (in our case, Bishop Wypich, the Episcopal Vicar for Vicariate V) in their pastoral care and administration in a given area of the Archdiocese. In my case, this is Deanery V-A, which encompasses 10 parishes on the Southwest Side of Chicago, 6 of which also have Catholic schools.


Dr. Knight: As an order priest could you help us to understand the Capuchin order? How is it related to the Franciscans?


Father John: The history of the Franciscan movement is one of a series of reforms, beginning with St. Francis of Assisi and continuing to the present day.


The Franciscan Family is composed of three orders. The First Order includes the Order of Friars Minor, the Order of Friars Minor Conventual and the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin (hence our initials, OFM Cap.). The OFM and OFM Conv. friars were established in 1517 under a papal bull called Ite vos, which united and organized the many, many orders of Franciscan men that existed at that time. The Capuchins were a further reform, established in 1528 under the papal bull Religionis zelus. The Capuchin reform was initiated primarily to promote a simpler and more itinerant lifestyle, particularly one that supported preaching.


Today there are over 10,000 Capuchin friars throughout the world, roughly 600-700 in North America. The fastest growing parts of the Order are in Southern Asia (especially India) and parts of Africa. Capuchins are engaged in a wide variety of ministries, from serving in parishes to operating soup kitchens, retreat centers, etc.


The Second Order of the Franciscan Family is composed of cloistered nuns, the Poor Clares, named after St. Clare of Assisi. The Third Order is the most diverse and by far the largest numerically. It is composed of the Order of Franciscan Seculars, a large number of sisters’ congregations, and the Third Order Regular (TOR) friars. In addition, there are also groups of Anglican and ecumenical Franciscans.


Dr. Knight: How did you receive your call to be a priest? How has this call changed over time? .


Father John: I’m one of those guys who received the call to be a priest at a young age, around 6. I grew up in Milwaukee a Catholic family in which there were priests on both sides of the family. We also experienced struggles due to addictions and divorce, and I remember the priests who were aware of this being men of real compassion and care. I served Mass throughout elementary school, and I think that also sustained my interest. When I got older, of course, I also thought or dreamed of being a father and husband and everything from a lawyer to a professional athlete. (I eventually went to law school after ordination, but the pro athlete thing didn’t work out!)


When I was ready to go to high school, I expressed interest in a high school seminary outside of the state of Wisconsin, but my parents thought that was too far away. My dad found out about St. Lawrence Seminary from my 4th grade basketball coach, whose son was a friar at the time. My twin brother and I went for a visit and liked it. My younger brother joined us a couple of years later. We all graduated and experienced the good work of the Capuchins at St. Lawrence. My brothers are both married and have children. The more I saw of the friars and the work they did, the more I thought that if God was calling me to be a priest, being a Capuchin priest would make the most sense.


When I graduated from St. Lawrence, I thought of entering the novitiate, but my late father (wisely) dissuaded me. He suggested that it would be good to experience a more normal college life. If my call was from the Lord, he assured me, it would remain. He was right. I spent three years in college doing the things many college students do (studying, sports, dating, etc.) before applying and being accepted as a resident candidate. It was during my years as a resident candidate that I deepened my understanding and deepening of life as a Capuchin friar, and those things further deepened as I moved through the next phases of initial formation: postulancy, novitiate, and post-novitiate. I am still learning!


Dr. Knight: What does belonging to an order mean to you? Can you explain this to the audience that we are honored to have?


Father John: It means many things, but chief among them are a sense of fraternity, a sense of being a “man of the Church,” and a servant. As friars, we are not only part of a “band of brothers” with one another we are also called to relate to everyone as a brother or sister. We are part of a global fraternity that is also part of a global church, and we serve the people of God according to our charism (fraternity, minority, simplicity, etc.) and as the Church needs. We live and serve through our Evangelical Counsels (poverty, chastity and obedience). How we live and minister as brothers is our first witness of the Gospel of Jesus in the spirit of St. Francis.


Dr. Knight: How about an easy question: what is your favorite film at this time? Book? Have you seen “Unplanned” or “Won’t You Be my Neighbor?”


Father John: I haven’t yet seen either of the movies you cited, though they have been recommended to me. I am a big fan of the films in the Marvel Universe because the Marvel superheroes, including the mutants (X-Men), tend to be people who are far from perfect but have been called to do extraordinary things. It’s not dissimilar from the call to sanctity that flows from our baptism. I enjoy re-watching films from time to time. I recently reviewed Romero, the 1994 film starring Raul Julia as (now St.) Oscar Romero. His conversion and courage were and are inspiring.


Most of the books I read are “work-related,” i.e. on Church, scriptures, etc. One that I am currently reading is Chicago: A Biography, a history of the city focusing on the social and economic environment.


Dr. Knight: What was it like to move from one end of the country to another as you are an order priest?


Father John: I’ve lived in several cities—Detroit, Milwaukee, Chicago, Washington, DC—and have appreciated them all. I also served six years as Provincial Councilor, six years as a Provincial Minister, and about ten years on our order’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission. These ministries gave me the opportunity to go about 20 countries on every continent (except Antarctica). That has been a great privilege and has given me a much broader perspective on what life is really like for people in various parts of the world. I guess that’s part of our Capuchin itinerancy.


Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that the use of social media in our parishes can assist young people to think about knowing/loving/serving God through their ‘cyber-neighbor’?

Father John: With young people, we tend to worry about social media—and in many cases, for good reasons. I think that social media can be a way of planting seeds and inviting reflection and conversation, but at some point people need to have personal experiences focused not so much on providing opportunities for selfies or posting material for Facebook, Snap Chat, Twitter or whatever, but on personal conversion. Personal experiences, silence and reflection will never go out of style.


Dr. Knight: As a pastor you are able to educate and spiritually form many people in the society through your work. What issues are predominantly on your mind and heart at St. Clare of Montefalco?


Father John: Our parish is composed primarily of immigrants, mainly first, second and third generation immigrants from Mexico. In many ways, their stories are not much different than those of my Irish, German, Polish and Swedish ancestors who arrived here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, there is the tension between assimilation and integration, and one of the ways in which this plays out is in the area of faith and religious practice, especially at a time when our wider culture is impacted by materialism and secularism. But there are also some fundamental differences, not the least of which are the historical relationship between the USA and Mexico and the current anti-immigrant environment that exists in many parts of our country and even among some of our highest officials. Violence—domestic violence and street violence—are also problems.


At the same time, I continue to be inspired by the people here. They are very family-oriented, work very hard, and have a rich life of faith and devotion that has taught me a lot. In many ways, they help me to recall with gratitude the hopes, struggles and sacrifices that my own immigrant ancestors and to not take all the blessings I’ve received for granted.


Dr. Knight: There have been very influential Bishops throughout the ages including saints. Who influenced you the most?


Father John: The bishops that have probably had the biggest impact on me were those whom I have had the opportunity to serve under over the years—all for various reasons. Among them have been Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, now-Archbishop Wilton Gregory and now-Cardinal Timothy Dolan. If I go back further in history to the bishops who were saints, I would add Archbishop Oscar Romero, St. Gregory the Great and St. Leo the Great.


Dr. Knight: It seems that this interview would help us understand your leisure activities (?) and purposeful work that would be of interest to our readers such as the help that has been provided to immigrants.


Father John: For leisure activities, I like working out, watching sports on TV or online, and reading (especially current events). For vacations (which I admittedly don’t do as often as I probably should), I enjoy going to historical places and museums. Later this summer I hope to go to Grand Rapids and visit the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library.


We work with a lot of groups in our area, including Priests for Justice for Immigrants and the Southwest Organizing Project (SWOP) and the Citizenship Program at our neighboring parish, St. Rita of Cascia, to promote greater opportunities for immigrant families.


Dr. Knight: What other issues do you have as a priority for our work as a society?

Father John: As a member of our province’s Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission, I am also interested in environmental stewardship, social and economic justice (particularly for people who on what Pope Francis has called “the existential peripheries”) and encouraging civic engagement—people working together to make communities better.


Dr. Knight: Thank you for doing this interview to help all of us understand your work better and to live a life in Communion with Christ.

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