Summer in the ‘Burgh

2 Pittsburgh priests walk into Kennywood … and leave with a viral video

It promotes Catholic Kennywood Day on July 23.

On the coaster in their clerical collars.

On the coaster in their clerical collars.

Screenshot from Diocese of Pittsburgh / Facebook
Rossilynne Culgan

So, two priests walk into Kennywood …

No, this isn’t the beginning of a joke. But it is the beginning of a hilarious viral video starring two local priests and promoting Catholic Kennywood Day.

In the video, the priests banter while the Phantom’s Revenge click-clacks to the top of the hill:

“Is there going to be collection?” Fr. Mike Ackerman asks Fr. Mike Zavage, who will lead the mass at the Catholic Kennywood Day.

“No, no. Well, just for Potato Patch, that’s all,” Zavage replies.

To prepare for the Phantom’s Revenge, Zavage says he’s been “praying to Our Lady of the Roller Coaster.”

As the car crests a hill more than 100 feet in the air, Ackerman makes the sign of the cross, gives his rosary a kiss and asks: “This isn’t fast, right?”

Then, the roller coaster plunges at 85-miles-per hour hour while Ackerman shouts “Save me, Lord!” and clutches his sunglasses. Meanwhile, Zavage is having a blast — smiling, cheering, and throwing his arms into the air.

If there were credits for the video, the role for Ackerman, the Diocesan Director of Vocations, would read something like “Scaredy Priest.” The title for Zavage, who serves as parochial vicar at St. Sebastian in the North Hills, might be “Brave Priest.”

Also appearing in the credits would be Nick Sciarappa, digital media strategist for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh, who filmed and edited the video, which was filmed May 31.

“They ad libbed it,” Sciarappa said. “They rode the roller coaster three times, but the video that you see is the first take. That was their natural reaction.”

Off-camera, Ackerman actually loves roller coasters. He’d even visited Cedar Point just a few days before filming the video.

“It was more of a role being played. … I just played a guy who’s terrified — it’ll make a funny video,” Ackerman said about his most recent film credit. “If something falls apart in priesthood, I’ll go to acting.”

He’s even been featured on a Pittsburgh famous Kennywood video before — as a four-year-old in WQED’s 1998 “Kennywood Memories” narrated by Rick Sebak. (He’s the blonde boy in the white-and-blue shirt in the video below at the 0:09 mark.)

The Diocese’s video was posted June 1 and has already garnered more than 200,000 views on Facebook and 4,000 on Twitter.

Parishioners are taking notice, too, Zavage said, with his congregants posting things like, “That’s my Father Mike!” He said parishoners aren’t surprised by him being himself on the video.

“I was always the goofball,” Zavage said — even in seminary. “I coined the phrase that ‘seminary is just a frat house for people trying to get holy.’”

While the video was plenty of fun for both priests, it also promotes Catholic Kennywood Day on July 23, a day at the amusement park featuring mass and a Christian worship concert.

It’s an “evangelisation” opportunity for the Diocese — “a big fancy word … that’s letting people know that loving Jesus is cool and it’s not that scary and that you can have fun doing it,” Zavage said.

The video is also an opportunity to show a new narrative about the priesthood in Pittsburgh.

“A lot of times people see priests as older and more solemn and serious, but there’s a ton of young priests in Pittsburgh,” Zavage said, adding that with all of the scandal that’s happened in the Catholic church, it’s important that not all priests are lumped together.

Reaction online has been mostly positive, though a few people on Facebook were riled over the priests’ light-hearted behavior.

Sciarappa knows social media alone won’t make people Catholic, but he sees it as a tool to encourage people to come to events, where they can meet others in the faith.

“Oftentimes priesthood is viewed as a sacrifice, but a joyful sacrifice is how it should be viewed,” Sciarappa said. “Just because someone is reverent at mass, they’re quite normal, and they enjoy roller coasters.”

Zavage even preached about the experience at Kennywood and the concept of nostalgia.

For now, he’s turning his attention to getting ready for his message at Catholic Kennywood Day.

“My sermon has to be phenomenal now. How do you beat the roller coaster video?,” he said with a laugh. “I’ve got to call my agent.”