My Favorite Priest
Fr. Robert C. Cieslinski was a priest in the mold of St. John Vianney … He was self-effacing and humble, but realistic.
“It is unusual to see so many people at the funeral Mass of a diocesan priest, especially one of his age.” So remarked Bishop Kenneth Steiner as he looked at the crowd of people in the cathedral of St. Mary, in the Archdiocese of Portland in Oregon, on August 11, 2011. .Who was this 92-year-old diocesan priest, whose mourners nearly filled the cathedral on that hot summer day?
Fr. Robert C. Cieslinski was a priest in the mold of St. John Vianney, on whose feast day, significantly, God summoned Fr. Cieslinski into eternity. In his almost 68 years as a priest, he served in only six parish assignments in the Archdiocese, but he was always available to help out other priests during his retirement, and very available to serve all those who came to him for counsel, comfort, and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. He knew how to lead the people under his care with a light touch. He shared what he had with generosity and warm hospitality. However, a lot of priests do that. So, what made Fr. Cieslinski so special in the eyes of so many people, some of whom drove 100 miles away to attend his funeral?
First, he was self-effacing and humble, but realistic. When he counseled seminarians, he reminded them that when they were in their own parishes, often in dioceses in mission areas that have vast distances to travel, they should be sure to take care of their health, having at least one substantial hot meal daily. They should be sure that they were driving a reliable car. To parishioners he often said: “God does not expect the impossible from anyone.” And, “If you feel that you need to do this (as healthful recreation), then do it.”
Second, he had so great a love for the priesthood that he always encouraged vocations, asking the young, and not-so-young, to consider the call. The homilist at his funeral Mass testified that as a young altar server, he watched Fr. Cieslinski carefully. He was struck by Father’s habit of going to the last pew of the church after daily Mass, each morning, to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. This young boy thought: “We just finished praying (Mass), and now he’s praying all over again!” When Fr. Cieslinski eventually invited him to consider the priesthood, he initially thought “Oh, no!” But, he went later on to the seminary, becoming the priest he is today.
Fr. Cieslinski went out of his way to be available, by phone or in person, whenever someone was in need. One day, after a long-time friend had just received from a doctor a dreaded diagnosis, Fr. Cieslinski responded, as soon as he could, calling the friend to administer the sacraments of Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick. He did this more than once—when he was officially “retired”—driving over an hour through traffic and across the city.
Nevertheless, a lot of priests do these “extras.” So, what made Fr. Cieslinski so special that he can be likened to the Curé of Ars? In one parish where he was assigned, he noticed that the people hardly went to Confession at all. When he first took over, he had no one come for that sacrament some Saturdays. It was then that he decided to encourage the people to return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation. By the end of the first year, a long-time parishioner remarked one day: “I think just about everybody in this parish has now gone to Confession within this last year. This would certainly make Fr. Cieslinski happy.” He even extended the hours for hearing Confessions before Christmas and Easter, so that he and another priest heard Confessions every day during the week before these great feasts. And, even when he was away for his annual retreat, or on vacation, he made sure that another priest would fill in for him in hearing Confessions and offering the daily Mass. People could rely on the posted schedule.
Parishioners then requested that he set aside one day of the week for exposition of the Blessed Sacrament. He obliged. He also made sure that the religious education program for the children was re-vamped by bringing in a sister of St. Mary of Oregon as director of religious education. One parishioner, whose three children were already enrolled in a Catholic grade school in Portland, sent her children to the new religious education program because it was so sound. She said that she wanted them to get a “double dose.”
Work and activity, however, do not necessarily touch the hearts of people. Fr. Cieslinski had something more. He once counseled a young priest: “When you can’t give some people all that they want, you can always give them kindness.” That was his secret, the secret why people loved him so much as a priest. He was kind. In fact, one parishioner often told him: “Father, you are the kindest person in the entire Archdiocese of Portland.”
That secret ingredient is something that everyone can have, and to which everyone else responds. Kindness touches the heart. Fr. Cieslinski touched many hearts.