ALLOUEZ — Imagine being in your first year of college and heading from Appleton to Chicago in the family Volvo station wagon. When you get there, you load up eight cellos and head back to Appleton’s Lawrence University.
That was Fr. John Girotti’s experience after he had decided to study at the conservatory at Lawrence University. He had been playing cello since age 14. Now, though, when enrolled in the university, it was required that he and his professor find the “right fit” for his own personal cello.
“We had to insure the car for millions of dollars to bring these cellos back,” said Fr. Girotti, who today is vicar for administration for the Green Bay Diocese. “That was a wild ride.”
He ended up with the cello he still owns today — a 150-year-old Czech instrument.
His musical career had started at age 4, largely because of a movie.
“’The Sound of Music’ was on television for the very first time,” he recalled. “My parents let me watch part of it. They had given me a little Fisher Price xylophone and, the next day, I plunked out “Doe a Deer.” So they thought, ‘You must be musical!’ So immediately I went to violin lessons.”
As he noted, “the Suzuki method (for violin) was all the rage in the 1970s.” His parents found him a teacher — Notre Dame Sr. Noraleen Retinger at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee — and he stayed her pupil until she retired when he was in the eighth grade.
That was when he switched to cello.
“There were so many violinists and not as many cellists,” he explained. “(The cello) gave me an opportunity to play more. And I liked the sound of the cello; it has a very rich mellow tone.”
However, another movie was soon to influence his life: “A Man for All Seasons,” about St. Thomas More. He saw it while on a confirmation retreat and “it made a big impact on me,” he told The Compass just prior to his 2002 ordination. “I knew God was calling me to something.”
Discernment took some time and he studied for three years at Lawrence University. However, “the call to the priesthood was so strong that I knew I had to answer and not wait any longer,” he said.
He had already given away his violin. Now he considered what to do with his cello as he prepared to head to the seminary. At the last minute, he again packed it into a car and headed for Mount St. Mary Seminary in Emmitsburg, Md.
“I thought, ‘I will bring the cello and put it in the corner and it will remind me of that part of my life,’” Fr. Girotti explained.
However, another seminarian from Baltimore, who was a concert pianist (now Fr. Paul Maillet of the Archdiocese of Baltimore), soon heard about his cello and suggested that the two play duets together.
“So where I thought I had to give up this part of me, God provides,” Fr. Girotti said, “and he allowed me to play music even in the seminary. … It was a wonderful providential thing.”
He eventually earned a bachelor’s degree in music, as well as a master’s in divinity — and, later, another degree (licentiate) in canon law from The Catholic University of America.
After ordination, there wasn’t much time for cello music. Fr. Girotti estimates that he gets to practice about once a month, although he keeps good care of the instrument, especially protecting it from humidity.
However, while he might not play the cello often, his music didn’t leave him and continues to weave itself into his ministry.
“Actually my musical background, in many ways, has been transferred to preaching and teaching and to talks that I give — I see it very much as an extension of music,” he said.
Music also helps him prepare his homilies.
“The classical (music) form,” he explained, “called ‘sonata form,’ is A-B-A. You have a main theme and you have variations of the theme, and then you come back to the theme. Homiletics is the same way, or I think it should be. You have a theme and you vary it with examples and stories, but you always come back to the theme. I have found that to be helpful in homilies.”
While he doesn’t play his cello often, that doesn’t mean music isn’t a big part of his life. He has “a retro record player” in his chancery office — admitting to having collected LP albums since he was 13-years-old and to now possessing “the complete repertoire of classical music” on vinyl.
“Music’s always been a big part of my life,” he said. “For me, I can wake up in the morning and I can hear Brahms ‘Fourth Symphony (Op. 98)’ in my mind. I can go through my day and I can still hear it — as if it’s progressing.”
Fr. Girotti loves more than just classical music. There’s chant music — not just plainsong, but the traditional polyphony of Gregorian chant and its many voices weaving together in praise.
And he doesn’t need a record or CD player to enjoy this type of music, since he lives at the Carmelite Monastery of the Holy Name of Jesus in rural Denmark and serves as chaplain for the Carmelite nuns there.
“I don’t need recordings,” he said, I can open my door at the monastery and listen to (chant) live.”
Then there’s also the jazz and popular music — from Sinatra to Dave Brubek and Miles Davis.
But music — and ministry and administration — isn’t the only theme in Fr. Girotti’s life. There are also cars. It started with his parents and filled his childhood.
“My parents (Margaret and Albert) loved cars,” Fr. Girotti said. “So, on Sundays, we would go and look at cars.”
That love of understanding how things work and fit together led to building models. In his office, you can find a replica of Chartres Cathedral, the U.S.S. Constitution and the U.S.S. New Jersey. Then, about five years ago, he began tinkering with cars — not models, but the real things — especially European cars.
What so intrigues him about automobiles?
“Cars are made up of many parts,” he explained, “and I like to know how they all work together.
“Music is the same way,” he added. “Canon law is the same way. So I am interested in details. And I strongly believe that details make up the whole. If we don’t get the details right, the finished product isn’t right.”
But it’s about more than details, especially for someone who works in the church.
“Those of us in ministry are in the people business,” Fr. Girotti explained. “That’s wonderful and I love it. But there is a helpfulness in using the other part of your brain, to be able to work with your hands, to be able to fix things. Let’s face it, a lot of times in ministry, we can’t really fix things. We try (but) God does the fixing.”
Fr. Girotti loves details. He loves cars. He loves music. But all of these pale beside the center of his life.
“My greatest love is being a priest. … What knits it all together is my love of Jesus, my love of the church and I love being a priest — even in these hard times,” he said.