By Debora Shaulis Flora – Special to the Catholic Exponent
Friday, September 18, 2009
“Some people go away to relax,” says Father Martin Celuch. “When I want to relax, I go among people.”
Father Celuch may be a full-time student again, but he can often be found in greater Youngstown, celebrating Mass, making hospital visits and spending time with friends who have become like family to him.
“It gives me energy,” Father Celuch said of his vocation.
Father Celuch, 33, is studying Canon (Church) Law at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He is in his second year of a three-year program. He also is an advocate on the Diocesan Tribunal, which handles cases involving Church law, acting primarily on requests to annul marriages.
When he is not at the university, Father Celuch stays at Boardman St. Charles Parish and assists various parishes, by celebrating Mass during summer, holiday seasons and on various weekends.
“I would say it’s only five hours away [from Washington], so I can be here anytime,” Father Celuch said.
A five-hour drive pales in comparison to the distance between this diocese and his native land. Father Celuch grew up in Sverzov, Slovakia. His family was “a great example of faith,” he said. For 20 years, his grandfather was responsible for opening the local parish church and setting up before Mass. His father, the late Cyril Celuch, did the same for seven years. Father Celuch became an altar server at age 5 and continued the family tradition of opening the church building as soon as he was old enough, he said. He and his brother also were very active in the parish’s youth group and village activities.
As a child, Father Celuch wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and make horseshoes. As a teen-ager, he believed his love of science and math would merge into a career as a researcher or textbook author.
By his junior year of high school, however, he was thinking about entering the priesthood. His was not a spontaneous decision, but the result of a growing desire. “I knew I liked to help people, so how would I do that? In a spiritual way,” he said.
Father Celuch had a good friend who also was interested in the priesthood. He and Father Celuch decided to pray about their callings for a while. By the time they were seniors in high school, both agreed to enter the priesthood.
“You live at the church for so long,” Father Celuch explained. “The church gave me so much. It became part of my life.”
When he entered Knazsky Seminary in 1994, Father Celuch believed he was going to be a priest of that diocese. That changed in 1999, after Father Celuch accepted an invitation from Msgr. Robert Siffrin, vicar general of the Diocese of Youngstown, and Msgr. Peter Polando, adjutant judicial vicar of the Diocesan Tribunal, to complete his studies in the United States. That ‘yes’ was a test of his faith.
“I had no clue about America. I didn’t speak English. It’s like a jump into open air, but there’s always a bridge —even a hidden one,” he said, recalling some scenes from the “Indiana Jones” action adventure movie series. “You take a step. Once you make it, you’re on the way.”
Father Celuch attended Point Park College in Pittsburgh and St. Vincent Seminary in Latrobe, Pa., where he earned a master of divinity degree in 2002. He returned to Slovakia for his ordination in June 2003. One month later, he was back in the Youngstown Diocese as associate pastor at Struthers St. Nicholas Parish.
His first assignment as a priest was “a great experience,” Father Celuch said. “People were very friendly. They made me at home.” Some even prepared Slovak food and made Easter baskets for him. “You feel welcome. You feel you are a part of their lives, in good times and difficult times.”
One challenge Father Celuch faced as a priest arose a few years after he arrived in the United States. He had always wanted to work with children and young people. By 2001, however, the Catholic Church was enveloped in the clergy abuse scandal. “It was scary, in a way,” Father Celuch recalled. “Something you enjoy suddenly you see as a threat to your job — how you act around kids.” The solution, he found, is to be himself and gain people’s confidence. “It is a challenge, but it can be done,” he said.
More recently, Father Celuch was encouraged by diocesan leaders to study canon law. He never imagined he would return to college, but when he was asked, “I said yes,” he said. “It’s part of my personality. When I make a decision, I stick to it. I make the best out of it.”
If Father Celuch has a bad or stressful day, “Sometimes a power nap is good,” he said. “Your problems don’t disappear, but [afterward] you have a different perspective.” He also reaches out to friends here in the United States or to his brother, also a priest, who is studying in Germany for his doctorate in theology.
His advice to persons contemplating career or vocation decisions is to have “an open mind — be open to other options,” he said. “When you are open, you can feel God calling you.” Whether one is called to priesthood, to religious life, to the single state, to marriage, or to be a good parent, “listen to the call,” he added.
He stressed that the decision to become a priest does not make one “out of this world” or a “freak.” Priests are “regular human beings. We are called to a special ministry. We are weak. We need support and advice. We have vices.”
Persons who are accustomed only to seeing priests celebrate Mass on Sundays can’t imagine themselves committing to similar lifestyles, Father Celuch said. But, “as priests, your interests are not taken away from you,” he said. He enjoys hockey games, bicycling, hiking, movies and cooking.
Also, “I have many families who became my family here.” He has open invitations to spend time with them during holiday seasons, he said.
Society tends to push aside lifelong commitments, whether to priesthood, religious life, married life or single life, Father Celuch said. He believes married persons and those in priesthood or religious life can help one another. “By being faithful to our vocations, we can strengthen each other’s vocations,” he said.
Once Father Celuch completes his canonical studies, he hopes he will again be assigned to a parish. He would like to work with persons in struggling marriages and those preparing for marriage. “Some issues people don’t see,” he said. “They just love each other. [But,] what about your values? What about your relationship to God? I think I can address those issues.”
Father Celuch also could be asked to serve as a judge on the Diocesan Tribunal. As such, he would assist priests on issues of canon law, which “show the boundaries” of the Catholic Church, he said. “Canon law touches everything,” Father Celuch said, including the church’s ownership of property; the formation of seminarians, teachers and Catholic schools; the roles of pastors and lay persons in parishes; and penalties for breaking Church law. Canon law also is consulted as part of diocesan restructuring plans. “All changes have to be valid, so canon law plays a big role,” he said.
Father Celuch isn’t making definite plans, however. “There may be a different need for me in a few years,” he said.
Debora Shaulis Flora is a veteran journalist living in Youngstown