EUGENE — At a recent Marist High School Mass, a student called Father David Cullings "a million laughs and unending inspiration."
The jubilant 71-year-old priest is about to retire after 20 years as a math teacher, chaplain and beloved mentor at the 525-student school. He's known for deep faith, clever remarks, wise counsel and picking up garbage in the parking lot. During Masses, he claps unabashedly and sways to liturgical songs.
"Spiritually speaking, our crosses are our best friends," Father Cullings told students at a recent outdoor Mass. "It's our crosses that help us understand other people. They keep us from being controlling. They keep us from being obnoxious. They keep us humble."
On this day, the priest has recruited three students for a skit that accompanies his homily. Each carries an imaginary cross. One boy lops off a portion of his to make it easier to bear. When all three come to a canyon that needs traversing, his cross is too short to form a bridge, but the others walk over easily. The vivid imagery is typical of his ministry here.
As a tribute, students and staff create their own skit after Mass. It involves a a set of monks who go off on ambitious tasks, while the people are most moved by the humble monk who stayed behind and steadily picked up trash from the monastery grounds. People at Marist understood immediately. Father Cullings has spent decades patrolling the school's parking lot, trash bag in hand. In the same parking lot, he has stood at the start of each school year, greeting students zealously.
The priest prefers not to be the center of attention. That's where Jesus should be, he says.
"He's a humble person," says Jay Conroy, principal at Marist. "He does not want attention and he works hard."
In lieu of a plaque for his retirement, students and staff pledged to do more than 1,100 hours of volunteer work this summer in his honor.
"Sweet," was Father Cullings' response, along with a small fist pump.
The chaplain has also received a never-ending lunch card and a pass to Marist athletics and performances. The parking lot he kept spiffy will be named in his honor.
Father Cullings, who also serves as a chaplain at Catholic high school in Hawaii, has traveled widely and is known for thriftiness. He never shops without a coupon, say his former parishioners at St. Peter Church in Eugene. He looks for two-for-one specials to take his mother out to dinner.
A native of Omaha, he was ordained a Benedictine monk in 1967 at Mount Michael Abbey in Elkhorn, Neb. He was incardinated in the Archdiocese of Portland in 1979. He has served as associate pastor and pastor at St. Joseph Parish, Salem; Sacred Heart Parish, Newport; and St. Peter Parish, Eugene.