Other Authors

He feels a ‘sense of community’ when he’s on the CTA

By Dolores Madlener | Staff writer
Sunday, October 21, 2012

Phillip Cioffi, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, 708 W. Belmont, sits with a Chicago Rapid Transit signal lantern from the 1930s. Cioffi collects old Chicago Rapid Transit Company memorabilia as a part of his interest in public transportation. (Julie Jaidinger / Catholic New World)

He is: Father Phillip Cioffi, associate pastor at Our Lady of Mount Carmel on the North Side, former administrator at Immaculate Conception Parish, Highland Park, 2008-2010. Moderator of the Chicago Oratorians from 1994-2008. Ordained 1981 at Mundelein Seminary.

Youth: A West-Sider, he attended Our Lady Help of Christians School, taught by the BVMs and Fenwick High School in Oak Park. “I have a brother and two sisters; I’m the youngest. Dad was a stock supervisor at Spiegel’s on 35th Street. He started there after the war and retired 34 years later. Mom preferred to be a homemaker as we were growing up.”

Vocation: “I lived too far from church to be an altar server and my parents didn’t drive. My mother says I talked about being a priest, but I don’t recall. I enjoyed my illustrated prayer book with its Latin and English, and pictures of the priest on each page. It inspired me. There were good priests at Fenwick but the accent was more on college prep. When I got to DePaul I planned on being a math major. I ended up an English major with a communications concentration. In my final two years I joined DePaul’s  theology club and got involved with a charismatic prayer group at St. Genevieve Parish.

My pastor Father Tom Maher got to know me and I became a lector. They say how important a personal invitation is, he casually said to me at a picnic, ‘Why don’t you go to Mundelein and study theology?’  I also talked with then-Father George Rassas. He was very good and didn’t push anything and said, ‘Why don’t you just finish college and see?’ That’s what I did.”

Work: “In high school a couple of the guys and I got interested in exploring the ‘L,’ especially on lines we hadn’t been on. We went to the public information department of the CTA and got some historical information. It fascinated me. I think a monster was created. I’m still very interested in the history of mass transit, especially Chicago’s, and current operations as well. Back then I considered going into planning at CTA or something like that.

“I joined a club of electric rail fans and they told me about someone at CTA in charge of management training. I got a job as a CTA ticket agent to try it out. I did that for five summers including the one between first and second theology. It was very good experience and very good pay.

“A spiritual director made the connection years later, the whole idea of feeling part of something bigger, like we feel about church, an urban kid could find transcendence in the power of a train rather than in nature. The fact we didn’t own a car, the transit was available 24/7. A sense of community -- being there with other people. But I have to admit, if I don’t get a seat I’m not as happy!  I bought my first car from a classmate the summer after I was ordained.”

Prayer life:  “Ten years after ordination I was approached by a friend and colleague, Deacon Ed De Lorenzo, who told me about the Oratory. Everything he said was wonderful and about St. Philip Neri in particular who founded it. We started to meet regularly with Deacon John Klemanovic and Father Alec Wolff, who is the current moderator. As an Oratory, there are no vows. You come up with your own statutes. It’s defined as a society of apostolic life and you help those in need. After about three years we approached Cardinal Bernardin. The Chicago Oratorians were founded on the Feast of St. Philip Neri in 1994.

“When I was at Immaculate Conception Parish in Highland Park. The pastor at the time was Father Terry McCarthy, who was supportive. We developed a nice core of lay people who were a little extended Oratory community.

“It can also be a way of binding priests together spiritually who live alone in rectories and aren’t members of a prayer group, to provide a spirituality that’s not overly structured, but with a context.” 

Travels: “Usually my main purpose visiting cities is to ride their subway or trolley lines, as well as sight-see. One thing I haven’t done is take a train from here to the West Coast. I’ve gone the other way. I’ve been on many Amtrak trains. On a European tour they wanted to give us the experience of their high speed train, the TGV, from Lyon to Paris. Our luggage went ahead on a bus, and we rode the train! You know you’re going fast when you look out the window, but you can’t appreciate scenery. I’ve not been to Japan to try their Bullet.”

Favorite Scripture verse: “It’s on my prayer card when I was ordained, from St. Paul’s letter to the Eph 5:2, ‘Follow the way of love even as Christ loved you.’”