FOREST GROVE — In 2015, after a rehearsal for a papal Mass in Madison Square Garden had been canceled, Msgr. Guido Marini and Msgr. John Cihak took the team of nervous acolytes into the locker room. Amid New York Rangers jerseys and hockey sticks, the two Vatican masters of ceremony gave the seminarians a pep talk.

“OK, fellas, you guys can do this,” Msgr. Cihak says, reconstructing the moment. “We have gone through it. We are going to pay attention and we are going to pray. Now, let’s go!”

Even the pope’s liturgical aides can have a Knute Rockne moment.

Msgr. Cihak, a University of Notre Dame graduate and priest of the Archdiocese of Portland, has returned to Oregon from the Vatican after nine years. He worked in the office that advises the pope on choosing bishops for the world and also was assigned to direct liturgical traffic at papal Masses. That job often put him at the pope’s side.

“It was mind blowing to have the Holy Father walk into the sacristy and say, ‘Hi, John. How you doing?’” Msgr. Cihak says.

He and Pope Francis would chat in a mix of Italian and Spanish, with the cheery Argentinian pope at times smiling and correcting his American emcee’s pronunciation.

Msgr. Cihak, 48, spent 16 of his last 23 years in Rome. He treasures the experience, but to say he is happy to be home among fellow priests, the people of Oregon, and his family is putting it mildly.

“Working at the Vatican is like being a priest at 30,000 feet,” he says.

The second of eight children in a Corvallis household, he obtained advanced degrees in Rome, including a doctorate. During priestly stints in Oregon, he taught at Mount Angel Seminary, directed pro-life activities in the archdiocese and served at parishes in Grants Pass and Gervais. Now, he is filling in through Easter at St. Anthony Parish in Forest Grove, where the pastor is out on sick leave.

After a 30-day retreat and a sabbatical to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, he will be assigned to lead a parish in western Oregon starting in July.

Msgr. Cihak is the only Oregon priest to have served at the Vatican. As an official in the Congregation for Bishops, he received recommendations for new church leaders and prepared an analysis that eventually would get to the pope.

“Working at that level is really being convinced this is the Lord’s church,” Msgr. Cihak says. “Some of the finest people that we have in the church work there. They are often hidden away and we don’t hear about them. There are some real saints there.”

At the same time, the Vatican offers abject lessons.

“There is a lot of power there and power is corrosive,” he explains. “Unless a person with a lot of power is actively and intentionally deepening his spiritual life and cultivating the virtues of humility and of simplicity of life and poverty, the power will take you.”

For his part, he faithfully meditates before the Blessed Sacrament for an hour each day. He prays the Divine Office. To make sure he was grounded as a human, he exercised and made sure to spend time with friends from the U.S. priests’ residence. He would make regular trips to Geneva, Switzerland, to visit his businessman brother’s family, kicking off his shoes, sitting on the couch and playing with the kids.

The phone call that changed his life came to Sacred Heart Parish in Gervais in 2009. The Vatican Congregation for Bishops had heard about him and had an opening. “It was one of those situations when unless there is a compelling reason to say no, the answer is yes,” Msgr. Cihak says. “But growing up I never thought I’d be a priest and when I became a priest I never thought I’d work at the Vatican.”

As master of ceremonies, he went to Loreto, Italy, with Pope Benedict. With Pope Francis, he has traveled to Korea, the United States, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The job can be hazardous. Last year while setting up for an outdoor papal liturgy in Bangladesh, Msgr. Cihak and his team were engulfed in a cloud of insecticide as the local officials chose that moment to fumigate for mosquitoes.

Despite the perils, he has taken to heart Msgr. Marini’s chief advice about the emcee job: You are there to facilitate prayer; what is going on in the liturgy reflects interior participation in the sacrifice of the Mass. Msgr. Marini, head of the papal emcees, is famous for calm and patience.

During papal liturgies, by custom highly scripted, Pope Francis has been known to “call audibles,” a term from American football meaning the quarterback orders a new play on the spot. The shift may cause a moment of panic for an emcee, but it always works out and no one else notices, Msgr. Cihak says, chuckling.

He was able to spend time alone with Pope Benedict and Pope Francis before he returned to Oregon. Pope Benedict, “the picture of meekness,” smiled at the prospect that the monsignor would return to the archdiocese led by Archbishop Alexander Sample, a name the retired pope recognizes.

Pope Francis, who often explains that a priest should spend no more than a decade working in Rome, said many kind things and as a gift gave a Msgr. Cihak a photo of the two men chatting on an airplane. An inscription says, “To John, with my blessings. Please pray for me.”

The monsignor was not idle with spare time while in Rome. He was a chaplain to the local Missionaries of Charity sisters and taught a seminar at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He even edited a book on the writings of St. Charles Borromeo, a 16th-century Italian nobleman who became an archbishop intent on purifying the church of corruption.

Msgr. Cihak’s favorite church in Rome is the Basilica of St. Mary Major, which goes back to the fifth century. The place where St. Charles was made a bishop, it is intimate and full of ancient mosaics, linking worshippers to the early church.

On the human side, Msgr. Cihak liked to dine at Il Giardino, a casual and simple restaurant that uses food produced on a family farm in southern Italy. Portlanders would love it, he says.

All the Italian speaking “fouled up” his Spanish, but he is getting it back fast, delivering a homily in Spanish each week. He admires the strength and devotion of the staff and parishioners in Forest Grove. He says they are a reminder of how encouraging and important parish life can be.

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