A worthwhile life

First slide

When he was young, all Father Bob Cilinski wanted was to make sure, when he looked back on his life, that he had done something "really worthwhile."

The 57-year-old pastor of All Saints Church in Manassas has since spent more of his life as a priest than not. He's celebrated countless sacraments. He's guided the formation of hundreds, maybe thousands, of youths in four different settings. He's overseen the building of two new churches. He serves as the president of the Board of Directors of Gabriel Homes, an outreach for mentally challenged adults. And he's helped lead many a sports team to victory.

Sound worthwhile? Read on.

A local guy

Father Cilinski comes from a strong local stock. Born June 25, 1953, in Alexandria to Edward and Catherine Cilinski, Father Cilinski was one of six children. His father was one of seven, including Msgr. John T. Cilinski, Father Julius Cilinski and Holy Cross Sister Camilla Cilinski, all deceased. The constant presence of these religious figures in everyday family life planted the seed of priesthood in Father Cilinski's mind as early as the fifth grade.

"There were priests always in our home," he said. "I felt very comfortable with (them)."

Father Cilinski grew up in Alexandria, attending St. Louis School and graduating in 1967. He sang in the children's choir and his mother would drive him to serve at 6:30 a.m. daily Mass.

The Church "was always a part of the fabric of my life from the very beginning," he said.

Surrounded by young, involved priests at the parish who took "an active interest" in youths, via sports and other activities, Father Cilinski continued to be interested in the priesthood.

But when he entered St. John Vianney Seminary High School in Richmond at age 14, things weren't as smooth sailing as he'd hoped. For the young man, away from his family for the first time, it was a year of homesickness and misery.

"I can say honestly the first year in the seminary was the worst year of my life," he said.

On the verge of dropping out, Father Cilinski decided, encouraged by his father, to give it one more shot. It turned out that a new, young faculty of priests made all the difference the following year.

"They were consumed with life and joy and energy and spirit and that attracted me," he said. It presented a "more realistic and more inviting" aspect of the priesthood.

So Father Cilinski stuck with it. Four years of high school turned into four years of college at St. Meinrad College in Indiana, from where he graduated in 1975 with degrees in philosophy and religion.

St. Meinrad was a college seminary that achieved the "normalcy" of a college atmosphere with a great sports program, he said.

"I liked that it had a feel of a regular college experience in addition to the fact that everyone there was considering the priesthood," he said. "It was the best of both worlds."

It was especially good for Father Cilinski, who was undergoing a vocational tug-of-war as he tried to discern between priesthood and marriage. Later, during his four years of seminary at Mount St. Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md., he turned his decision completely over to God. Thirty-one years later, he knows it was the right choice.

The early years

Though Father Cilinski had begun his formation in Richmond, when the Arlington Diocese was formed in 1974, he decided to come back up north.

"These were my people," he said, laughing. "It's where my family was."

After four years at Mount St. Mary's studying theology, Father Cilinski was ordained by the late Arlington Bishop Thomas J. Welsh on May 12, 1979.

"It was exciting," Father Cilinski said. "It was great to be one of the new priests for a new diocese."

Because of the encouragement he'd received from various mentors as a youth, Father Cilinski made it a priority to engage young people in the Church. In his first assignment, as parochial vicar of the Cathedral of St. Thomas More in Arlington, 1979-82, he spent a lot of time developing relationships with the young people and bringing them to Christ.

"They were just a joy of my priesthood," he said. "I was closer to their age, so I thought they could relate to me."

It was natural for Father Cilinski, a true sports lover, to use those activities as a way to reach out to young people. He played sports growing up, in high school, college and after. He founded the Earthen Vessels priests' basketball team in the early 1980s and now regularly plays golf with three other priests - an activity that refreshes his spirit as much as it does his ability to putt.

For his first youth ministry event at the cathedral, he took youths hiking on Old Rag Mountain in the Shenandoah National Forest and got everyone lost. On his birthday, the young people gave him a compass. And so began a rapport with young Catholic faithful that continues to this day.

When Father Cilinski was transferred to Holy Family Parish in Dale City in 1982, he continued forming relationships with young people and families.

"God's love is shown to us through God's people and through the Church and people caring for us and being there for us and celebrating our gifts and bringing out the best in us," Father Cilinski said. "For me, I had that experience in the Church growing up, and I wanted other young people to have that experience, to know that they're loved."

A brand new chaplain

It was probably this devotion to young people that inspired then-Arlington Bishop John R. Keating to ask Father Cilinski to be the first full-time Catholic chaplain at George Mason University (GMU) in Fairfax.

So, in 1986, Father Cilinski moved to an acre and a half of land in Fairfax, on which stood an old farmhouse, and established a Catholic presence on campus. He oversaw the building of St. Robert Bellarmine Chapel, which replaced the farmhouse as the hub of all campus ministry activities. The farmhouse continues to serve as the priests' rectory.

Though challenging, serving as campus minister at GMU was a "great gift of my priesthood," Father Cilinski said. Living and working among the students and faculty, he learned to empower them and engage them in the Faith. The students, he said, were inspirational, involved deeply in their faith and campus activities.

After 14 years at GMU, Father Cilinski was transferred back to parish life, this time at All Saints.

"I went from a very large university to a very large parish," he said. He remembers greeting the children at the school at the start of the academic year in Manassas. It was the same as at GMU, he said, "they were just a little smaller."

At home in Manassas

Shepherding the flock of the largest Catholic parish in the diocese is never easy, and it's a special challenge when that flock wants a new church. For the last 10 years, the parishioners of All Saints have been struggling with an outdated church with too many leaks and not enough seats.

When Father Cilinski arrived in 2000, he listened to the needs of the parishioners, agreed with them, and got the 33,000-square-foot church underway.

The generosity of the parishioners during this process has been overwhelming, Father Cilinski said.

The new church is scheduled to be dedicated by Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde this Saturday.

"It's a moment to re-dedicate ourselves as the Church, the living stones," Father Cilinski said. "The building is an expression of the community. It not only houses the congregation, but it tells their story."

As the new church opens, the story of All Saints is now even more a part of Father Cilinski's story. In that building he'll be able to continue the priestly ministry he began three decades ago. He'll continue doing what he loves - "sharing the sacraments and Christ's love with others at the significant moments of their lives." And, when Father Cilinski looks back on his life, it's a good bet he'll consider it, without a doubt, as nothing short of worthwhile.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2010