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April 27, 2008

Still baiting the ‘hook’ with jokes and spiritual zeal

By Dolores Madlener

STAFF WRITER

Interviewee

Father Michael Michelini, pastor of St. Adalbertʼs in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago, is a White Sox fan. Catholic New World/Natalie Battaglia

He is: Father Michael Michelini, pastor of St. Adalbert Parish, on West 17th Street. Attended St. John Bosco School, Quigley North, Niles and Mundelein. Ordained 1971. Has master’s of Divinity. Sent to Puerto Rico to study Spanish following ordination. Has served as treasurer of the Presbyteral Senate. Currently a spiritual director of archdiocesan Cursillo movement in English and Spanish. His entire ministry has been in Vicariate III.

Growing up: Mom was Polish, Dad was Italian. “We lived in my Polish grandparents’ house, on the Northwest Side. I grew up speaking Polish and English.” Dad was from Hillsboro, Ill., near Springfield; Mom a Chicagoan. He’s the oldest of four children.

Neighborhood: “It was Italian/ Polish, typical Chicago style, around Belmont-Cragin. A great place to grow up. Everyone knew everyone. We’d visit from front porch to front porch in the summertime, or play street games. The old men would drink beer, we’d drink soda. TV wasn’t that important to us.”

Relaxation: “Our vacations were close and free. My dad was a fisherman so we went fishing at Navy Pier every weekend.”

Catch and release: “I’m a diehard fisherman.” His family’s Jeopardy game show joke is: “A. Enough fishing gear to start his own Sportsmart.” Q. “What does Uncle Mick have in the trunk of his car when he comes to visit?” He also has a fishing truck, “an ’87 Chevie S-10 pickup with a cap. I fish in the Forest Preserves with friends and usually catch and release.” Pals gave him a mounted 12 1/2- inch bluegill he caught in Gillman, Wis.

Student days: “I was a precocious kid. Nowadays, I’d be considered a discipline problem. Not because I didn’t study, but I was always goofing around until high school.” First job was a newspaper boy.

Idea of priesthood: No one suggested it to him. “I said it myself in seventh grade. The Apostles of Mary — Quigley seminarians — came out to our school to pitch the priesthood.” In eighth grade he told pastor Msgr. John Sugrue he wanted to go to Quigley. His teacher told him later, “You won’t last a year. You’ll get kicked out.” He told himself, “I’m gonna show her.”

Wise parents: “I’m thankful my parents never pushed me into priesthood. My dad said, ‘Give it a shot, and if it ain’t for you, come home, no questions asked.’”

In the beginning: His first assignment to St. Aloysius Parish was “a happy start to priesthood.” Father John Vlazny [now Bishop] was a resident, while teaching at Quigley. “He played the accordion. A nun on the staff played saxophone. Father Bill Berghaus, the pastor, tap-danced, and I was his straight man.” They took their show to nursing homes.

“It’s amazing how much music and entertainment has played a part in my priesthood.” He recently did “stand-up” at the Padres Plus on Parade archdiocesan variety show.

Favorite comedian: It all depends — “Steve Allen, Myron Cohen ... My style of comedy is more observational. I can tell jokes, but priesthood and Christian life in general is pretty funny. You’ve gotta be able to laugh.”

Day off: If he’s not fishing, he’s “train-travelling. I’m a train buff. I ride the South Shore and take day trips to Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, Champaign, have dinner and come back on the last train.” He’s journeyed by rail to Canada, the Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia and around the United States.

Has his priesthood changed?: “The motto on my chalice is: ‘That all may be one’ and that hasn’t changed. The ministry is different than when I started 37 years ago, but some of the challenges are the same.” He tries to get people to “appreciate the richness they have in each other — be willing to take the risk of forming community. It’s a process. After they get to know one another the unity comes.”

The Gospel measure: “I tell [the Cursillistas] I’m a dedicated Marxist: I believe in Groucho, Harpo and Chico,” and in Groucho’s “You Bet Your Life” TV show. “I bet my life on the Gospel. Jesus bets his life on us. That’s why celibacy, that’s why the style of priest that I am. All priests, in different ways, all bet our life on the Gospel.”