Aside from his home life, the atmosphere of prayer was reinforced at school as well. Having attended Catholic elementary school as a child, he recalls having “learned to pray” beginning with his First Holy Communion. During this time, as he learned to pray the rosary, Fr. John developed a special devotion to the Blessed Mother, so much that he recreated the school’s May Altar in his room at home. Embracing this new-found devotion, his parents would often take him on trips to the local shrines.
It was around this time, at the age of 5 or 6 that Fr. John was really drawn into the Mass through prayer. Not long after, Fr. John recalls having received his first calling to the priesthood, which he describes as a “gentle invitation”. He noticed that once the priest emerged, the entire congregation suddenly would quiet down, “they became focused and paid attention, hanging on to every word”. From that experience an awe settled in him. After that moment every time he was asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, he would spontaneously (and at a very young age reply), “a priest”. He says, “Other friends wanted to be cowboys, and here I wanted to be a priest.” The realization of his calling was there and it never left.
Later on in the 5th grade, Fr. John would experience the Mass from a whole other perspective after becoming an altar server. Serving gave him a new-found joy of experiencing the Mass and he felt an honor to serve. Then in the 8th grade, Fr. John received a very special invitation to visit the new Borromeo Seminary, which had just opened in Cleveland. “After that experience, the rest is history”, he says.
Fr. John entered the seminary in his freshman year of high school, and in that very first year learned that “being a priest is being a man of prayer”. In his second year at Borromeo, the seminarians were assigned “field work”, so Fr. John taught theology to the deaf – a challenge but heart warming experience that along with The Second Vatican Council in his last year at the seminary, led to his pursuit of a Doctorate in Theology.
After his ordination, two particular instances stand out to Fr. John which aided in the formation of his prayer life. The first happened when he attended a Cursillo retreat for the first time, which is an evangelization of Catholics to come together and know Jesus and the Church in a personal and less theological way. The intent is for one to grow in their relationship with Jesus through prayer, scripture study, and group discussion during the Cursillo and ongoing support after to keep their experience alive and support one another in their continued development of a life of prayer. For Fr. John the experience was a major factor in his life as it began to open him up to sharing his relationship with Jesus to others.
The second experience which would leave a lasting impression on Fr. John occurred during his first encounter with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. While studying oversees to complete his Doctorate, the seminary he was staying at had what began as a Charismatic Prayer Group, but quickly grew with an outpouring of interest by seminarians and others within the community. From this encounter, seminaries would share experiences with one another about their prayer life and relationship with God that would stay with Fr. John well into his career as Spiritual Director for the Seminary here in Cleveland.
As Spiritual Director for the Seminary and later the Diaconate Formation Program, Fr. John has helped many priests, deacons, and seminarians grow in their prayer lives throughout the years. So for those who may be reading this and are looking for formation in their own prayer life and might not know how to go about it, Fr. John has some advice.
First he says, “Remember as much as you want to pray, God wants you to pray even more. He realizes it’s difficult, so don’t think too much about it – you don’t have to entertain Him, try to make Him feel good, or impress Him. Instead go before Him just as you are; get acquainted with one another. Most importantly, be spontaneous and talk from the heart. Don’t worry too much about the words – sometimes you don’t need words – just know that you are with God and He with you, and your relationship will begin to slowly develop.
Now as Senior Parochial Vicar at St. Michael in Independence, Ohio, Fr. John has a bit more time for prayer. He prefers a quiet meditative prayer before the Trinity, and very often his prayer will center around a mantra from the psalms in the Daily Office. He says, that often a word or phrase from the psalm will elicit an emotion (good, bad, and ugly) which he may be currently experiencing. So he will stop for a moment and reflect on that word or phrase in the presence of God. Fr. John has discovered that through this process of reflection, the product is coming to know the unique love the Trinity has for him, who he is as a person, and where he is at this point in his life.
Above: Fr. John Vrana vesting Fr. Michael Denk on the day of his ordination.