NORTH CANTON  About 500 of the Rev. John Patrick Manning Jr.'s closest friends showed up for a picnic last Sunday to honor him for 40 years in the priesthood.

The picnic followed a celebratory Mass at St. Michael the Archangel parish in Plain Township.

Colleen Flanagan said she first met Manning when he was serving as an assistant priest at Our Lady of Peace parish, now Christ the Servant.

Asked what she'd like people to know about him, Flanagan laughed.

"How much time do you have?"

"He's a brilliant man," she said. "He's a wonderful listener. He pulls no punches when he speaks. He's such a learned and spiritual man."

Manning has been a fixture on the campus at Walsh University, where he serves as an associate professor of theology.  He holds a doctorate in Roman Catholic systemic theology from Duquesne University, and master's degrees in religious education and theology from Boston College and the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.

Manning, a Jesuit, also holds degrees in sacred theology and English literature.

"Not only is he a priest, but he's an educator, " said his friend, the Rev. Benson Okpara, pastor at St. Mary/St. Benedict parish. "He reaches out to everybody. He doesn't wait for people to come to him."

In addition to Walsh, Manning has taught at the University of Mount Union, Hiram College, St. Mary Seminary in Cleveland, St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Louisville (six years), and at diocesan high schools in Warren and Ashtabula.

He also served as pastor of the Newman Center at Kent State University, and in Columbus as institutional vice rector, vice president and associate professor at the Pontifical College of St. Josephinum.

This past spring, he taught at St. Patrick College Seminary in Ireland, and at Walsh's campus in Rome.

"Downtown Youngstown"

Manning is the second of 10 children. His mother was a nurse; his father was in management at a car parts manufacturer.

"I burped a lot of babies and changed a lot of diapers, back before they had disposable diapers," Manning said laughing.

Growing up in "downtown" Youngstown, Manning said, helped him to become the priest he is today. Staunch Irish Catholics, the family faithfully attended Mass at St. Edward's parish, "front and center," Manning noted.

Manning said he felt called to the priesthood during his senior year in high school.

"I had a sense of giving it a try, with the intention that it's not what I wanted to do," he explained. "But it stuck."

His family was supportive.

"One of the problems we have today is parents aren't enthusiastic about their sons going into (priesthood)," he said, adding that, nonetheless, there's been an uptick in vocations. Today, the average age for a Catholic priest is 63. In many dioceses, they're serving more than one parish or blended parishes.

"It's going to be quite a while before the numbers change," Manning said. "One of the blessings is, it's enabled us to tap into the gifts of the laity. Baptism is commissioning ministers, not, 'I belong to the club.'"

Manning's first assignment was as a deacon in Scotland. He served as a priest at present-day Basilica of St. John the Baptist in Canton from 1986 to 1987. He also served as pastor-administrator at Regina Coeli parish in Alliance and St. Joseph parish in Maximo.

“When I recruited Father Pat Manning to Walsh University, I knew he would be a man of the people – there for students, faculty and staff, as well as others," said Walsh University President Richard Jusseaume. "What I did not know is that he was a gifted storyteller, a great professor, and a priest who could be counted on to defend his church, his university, and all who sought him out for help and advice.”

Storms of life

Manning said he thoroughly enjoys teaching and interacting with students - but with one caveat.

"In some sense, young people have energy, curiosity and potential," he said. "In some aspects, they have more skills and access to information than any other generation in history. One concern I have is the addiction to social media. And I really mean the word 'addiction.'"

For that reason, Manning said, he prohibits the use of phones during his lecture. Those who insist, he said, are asked to leave.

"The first time it happens, everybody looks like I never said it," he said with a smile. "I'm worried they won't have the social and listening skills needed for the complexity of communicating with another person."

During his anniversary Mass - which included a bagpiper - Manning did not shy away from the abuse scandal in Pennsylvania, saying in part "... those who were supposed to make the church a place of refuge and safety, did just the opposite. But we must remember it is some terribly sinful people in the church -- not the church itself -- that did these horrible things."

Manning likens the church to a boat, the earliest symbolism of the faith, noting that a church's nave is actually designed in the shape of boat.

"God is guiding the church like a boat, to carry us over the storms of life," he said. "If you're in the middle of an ocean and some crew member misbehaves, that's no reason to jump the ship."

The church, he said, must do a better job in reaching out to youth through religious education programs in order to help them become more interested in ministry.

"I've had the opportunity to meet so many good people in very parish, in every assignment. As priests, we are invited into people's live at the most important times of their lives," Manning said. "They're usually very happy or very sorrowful. It's much more interesting than people think.

"I'm very, very grateful for the opportunity to be a priest. I'm grateful to the diocese and the bishop for their support through the years. It's a blessing to get up every day. I know there's nowhere else I'd rather be."

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