He’s a rugby player, a bagpiper and a priest!

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Ermatinger05Fr. Cliff Ermatinger puts on a short performance on the bagpipes for parishioners after the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Anthony Church in Milwaukee on Sunday, Jan. 8. He is playing a set of Great Highland Bagpipes, made by Atherton Pipes in Naperville, Ill. The pipes are made from holly and African blackwood. More photos of Fr. Ermatinger playing the bagpipes can be viewed at http://photos.chnonline.org. (Catholic Herald photo by Ernie Mastroianni)Fr. Cliff Ermatinger is a Catholic priest, but don’t be surprised to find him on the rugby pitch, participating in a bagpipe competition or in the woods training a hunting dog.
Chicago native Fr. Ermatinger not only dispels the myths that a priest’s life is all prayer, he may well have rearranged the idea of what it means to be a Catholic priest, and few young people could argue that his life is lacking excitement.
Not only is Fr. Ermatinger fluent in five languages, he is the author of five books, and a world traveler, giving courses in spiritual theology, spiritual direction, apologetics and youth formation. He has served as media spokesman for the funeral of Pope John Paul II and the election of Benedict XVI on Good Morning America, the BBC, CBS, Vatican and international television stations. If that is not enough, he is training a Gordon Setter Scottish hunting dog; and has a passion for rugby, hunting, fishing and is an accomplished bagpiper.
The 47-year-old former member of the Legionaries of Christ felt God’s first call to the priesthood when he was 5, and while he never intellectually veered from that calling, he decided to stray from the plan after attending Archbishop Quigley High School. Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki was the school’s Dean of Discipline when the future priest attended the high school. After graduation, he put God on the back burner and joined the Marines.
“I figured I’d be a reservist in college, put my time in as an officer and then get back to God,” said Fr. Ermatinger. “Even though it was a good thing I was trying to do, it was not easy on my conscience. I knew God wanted me to become a priest, and I deviated from that plan.”
During a routine training exercise at Camp Pendleton, he suffered a serious injury, lost a lot of blood and for the first time was confronted with his own mortality.
“I was thinking about what I can offer God after he had given me everything,” said Fr. Ermatinger. “It felt like I had emptied him.”
After the injury, he was processed out of the Marines, and as a senior at Gonzaga University, in Spokane, Wash., came upon the book, the “Ascent of Mount Carmel” by St. John of the Cross.
“It was instrumental in my understanding of my need for ongoing conversion and the need for spiritual life formation,” said Fr. Ermatinger. “My encounter with St. John of the Cross was defining for me. I began looking for (religious) orders after that.”
A consultation with the Carmelite nuns in Des Plaines, Ill., helped him to discern the Legionaries of Christ, as he felt called to a strict religious order. He joined in 1987, but due to the many internal issues with the order, left in 2009, returned to Chicago and served two Hispanic parishes there.
“When I was with the LC, the revelations of the crimes of the founder coupled with a lack of strong will in reforming, led me to leave. I knew I wasn’t going to change things,” he said. “The moment I said it wasn’t for me, I had tremendous peace. I had migraines and insomnia the whole time I was with them and once I decided to leave, they came to an end.”
While he enjoyed serving the church in his hometown, his father and sister lived in the Milwaukee area, and Fr. Ermatinger wanted to be closer to them, so he reconnected with Archbishop Listecki about being incardinated into the Milwaukee Archdiocese.
“He was also the pastor at my home parish and I had great respect for him,” said Fr. Ermatinger. “Leaving Chicago was difficult, but it was a beautiful transition and I’ve been blessed with serving St. Anthony Parish and School (Milwaukee), and happy to be near my family.”
At 18 months into the three-year incardination process, Fr. Ermatinger has rekindled his college love of rugby with students at the primarily Hispanic school. A self-described “nitty gritty” rugby player, he implemented a St. Anthony High School Rugby club.
“I’m trying to get some coaches to help out because my participation has been sporadic due to parish and school responsibilities. I would be doing a great disservice to the coaches who are so constant by calling myself a coach, but I can put my two cents in and my hand in it,” he said, laughing. “Before seminary, I played a lot in college and for the Chicago Lions. In Chicago, I started a middle school rugby club – I love it, the kids play with such heart, passion and seriousness and it is beautiful to see that.”
Those passing by the St. Anthony rectory between 10 p.m. and midnight might hear the lonesome sound of bagpipes emanating through the walls. Though his Germanic last name is misleading, Fr. Ermatinger has Scottish ancestry. Since he was 12 years old, the bagpipes captivated his attention, and now, he competes around the country in the Highland Games.
“In fact, I took my vacation time last year to go to Scotland for some individual training and had a great time,” he said. “Playing bagpipes is a good channeling of my creative energy and mental attention. It requires being so focused that you kind of forget everything else to dedicate yourself to play the tune and execute it with perfection – which can be taxing at times, but it’s very therapeutic.”
Over the years, he has won numerous awards for his ability to learn the various idioms and expression of performing the music in the Scottish tradition. Not one to brag about his accomplishments, Fr. Ermatinger tosses his many awards in a drawer as he focuses more on the cultural and musical aspects.
“It is a beautiful cultural world that I grew up in, and I enjoy having it part of my life,” he said. “There have been times I played for my parishioners, and even had a bagpiper at my installation Mass at St. Anthony. It is such a rich part of my heritage.”

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