His secret for staying young, love what you're doing

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, June 29, 2014

Father John Cusick gives the homily during a funeral Mass for his friend Father Andrew Greeley on June 5, 2013. (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

He is:  Father John Cusick, ordained at Mundelein in 1970. Former associate pastor at Mary Seat of Wisdom, Park Ridge and at Old St. Pat’s since 1985; former Niles Seminary faculty member, named coordinator of Young Adult Ministry in 1977, and director of YAM from 1985 until 2013. Worked with Theology on Tap (now world-wide) since Father John Wall created it in 1981, as well as many other programs. Founder of First Friday Club of Chicago. Retiring after 44 years of ministry on June 30. 

A South Sider: “I was baptized at St. Sabina’s, graduated from Little Flower and said my first Mass at St. Thomas More.” An only child, his dad worked for the Rock Island Railroad. Cusick is an Irish name. “I’m only half Irish; German on the other side, and I had no idea what I was growing up. It wasn’t important.”

Work ethic: “My father always said to me, ‘Whatever you do, give it your best.’ He didn’t ask for perfection, he just said ‘Try hard,’ so I tried hard. I delivered the Southtown Economist and the Chicago American. I was a caddie at Beverly Country Club, and assistant caddiemaster for five years. Those were big jobs. One of my mentors was caddiemaster Ed Barr. He taught a bunch of us kids discipline and honesty. He asked me to be his assistant and I was only 15. So essentially I was a quasi-boss to 200 kids in the caddie yard, most of whom were bigger than me, stronger than me and older than me.”

Path to priesthood: The priests in my parish were mentors, there’s no doubt about that. I’m probably a classic Exhibit A of how a kid got to Quigley. I hung around the parish, served Mass, or anything they needed. Msgr. Steve McMahon, pastor at Little Flower, was either loved or hated, and my family loved him. And Father Ray Gerrity, who’s still alive, was probably the closest inspiration, because he was in charge of the altar boys. A number of years ago he called me and asked, ‘Someday, God willing,’ would I preach his funeral. I was humbled and teary-eyed.”

First assignment: “All I can say is during these 44 years, I’ve been a pretty lucky guy. Starting in Mary Seat of Wisdom in 1970, if I could have scripted it I couldn’t have written it any better than I lived. They were exciting times. We had a great parish, wonderful rectory, great people – it was a dream come true.”

Serving young people: “I was full time on the faculty at Niles. Part of the work Father Jack Wall and I did was to recruit – we went around to boys’ Catholic high schools and talked to guys about the possibility of becoming priests. The person who invited me into this new part time position called ‘coordinator of Young Adult Ministry’ (and later as director) was Father Ray Sullivan in 1977.” The job description was a blank sheet of paper. “I just used my own street smarts. They gave me no guidance, no direction and no money. But I discovered both of my jobs had a point of convergence -- in one group I was asking them to consider priesthood; to the other group in their 20s and 30s, I was asking them to consider the church.”

Challenging: “It wasn’t as hard a sell in those years with 20-30 year olds. Things have changed dramatically in the last 10-15 years. First of course, there’s always a core group that is very dedicated to the church. But more young adults today have a casual or even a distant relationship to the church. That’s the difference between then and now.

“You just need to look at some of the data on the archdiocesan web site. It says every year Catholic Mass attendance keeps going down, weddings performed in church are going down, and baptisms and funerals are going down. Yet we still have the same number of Catholics. I think the most critical issue facing the Catholic Church today is the absence of younger people at weekend Masses – single or married. If customers at McDonald’s dropped those percentages, it would be a crisis.

“We have to be much more aggressive, pastorally welcoming, and outgoing to these next generations. When we were much younger, the backbone of our parishes were people 20-25 to 40-45. They just weren’t called young adults. There are fewer of them at Mass now than ever before. So what do we do? You talk with Religious Ed directors and they can’t get little kids to come to church on Sunday because their parents don’t come. There’s no magic ingredient, but if enough people sat down and committed themselves to doing something about this, we could come up with some pretty good suggestions and plans.”

Asking questions: “How do you create an attitude of hospitality, outreach and catechesis to this generation of people? How do we personally invite them into participatory roles in parish life? When was the last time a director of worship or director of other ministries said, ‘You know something? We need 10 more lectors for the coming year. I’m going out and find 10 people under the age of 40.’ Instead they get the same people all the time.

“This is not a problem just for the clergy, it’s a lack of an overall creative plan to regenerate parish life. I’ve offered a plan and talked about one around the country. Pat Marshall at the Newman Center, for example, is doing great work and is a very talented man.

“We need to reach out and invite a generation into more active roles. Not just stand up on Sundays and say, ‘If anyone’s interested, give me a call.’ Young people don’t believe you really mean them, when you ask for volunteers, because they don’t see anyone like them involved right now.”

Leisure: “I love to garden and I enjoy playing golf. I love to keep my hands in the dirt. My mother was born on a farm and I think I got part of that gene. I cook as a hobby. The grill man. I have a dear friend who’s a French-trained chef in Chicago and he’s inspired me. I think it’s a miracle if I can boil water.” Favorite author? “My great mentor was Father Andy Greeley. I must have at least 60 of Andy’s books. In the past when I read them and got stuck on something I’d call him up and say, ‘What do you think about this?’ So I was very blessed to have him as a friend.”

Round-up: Why he never burned out? “Because I loved what I did every day. I’ve never felt anything but young.” Of all his awards, which is his sentimental favorite? “Probably the John XXIII Award in 2012 from the Association of Chicago Priests. That comes from your brothers.” Any big plans?  “I have no retirement plans at all. I’ll probably stay in the archdiocese part time.”

Favorite Scripture verse: “I have come that you may have life and life in abundance.” (Jn 10:10)


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