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What does four decades as a priest look like? One bishop shares his story

On his 40th anniversary as a priest, Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck says he has a deeper understanding of his own vocation than when he was first ordained.

“My vocation is who I am and it is not just what I do at times. I think I understand much better now that I am a priest forever,” he told EWTN News in a recent interview. “This is a tremendous grace which gives me much consolation every day, but it is the daily challenge to me to be who I have been called to be in every way.”

His comments came after priests from the Diocese of Bismarck gathered along with loved ones on May 20 to mark jubilee anniversaries ranging from 10 to 60 years with Mass at the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit.

For Bishop Kagan, the strongest memory in 40 years of priesthood remains his ordination day in 1975, which came with an “exhortation to become what I celebrate at the altar of God.”

“I don’t think I am there yet, but by God’s mercy and grace I keep trying,” he added.

He says the best part of being a priest “has always been celebrating our Church’s liturgies, especially the liturgies of the Most Holy Eucharist and Reconciliation.”

Having served as Bishop of Bismarck since 2011, he said his favorite part of that role is two-fold: ordaining priests and administering the Sacrament of Confirmation.

“These give me such great hope and my own faith is always renewed at these times.”

In the time since his ordination, he’s seen many changes in the Church but “perhaps the most dramatic” was the introduction of face-to-face confession and the wide availability of the Code of Canon Law and the Catechism to the laity. Even now, he says he is “seeing and experiencing the good fruits of these changes.”

For the young men preparing for the priesthood in the seminaries, Bishop Kagan advised them not to “second guess God’s choice of you” but to “(h)umbly accept it and enter completely into priestly formation.”

“It does not end with Ordination, your priestly formation goes with you into the priesthood.  Enjoy it now and keep it fresh and vital as it will stand you in good stead as a priest,” he said.

Fr. John Paul Gardner, a priest celebrating his 10th anniversary in the diocese, had similar advice for seminarians.

Echoing Bishop Kagan, Fr. Gardner encouraged them to “spend every single day praying for the grace necessary to fulfill the call of Christ” and to ask the Blessed Mother for her help.

“If we hesitate in that, (that’s where) the devil is lurking,” he warned, “and that’s where scandal’s going to occur, so it’s really essential to say ‘yes’ to Jesus wholeheartedly.”

Born nine months after John Paul II’s election and ordained just two months after the pope’s death, Fr. Gardner said the saint has always been “one of my heroes.” The strongest memory he has as a priest is being in St. Peter’s Square when his namesake was declared a saint April 27, 2014.

“Ever since I was a little kid I wanted to be like him,” Fr. Gardner said, “so just to be there when there were so many people – that was a pretty big highlight of my life.”

One thing Fr. Gardner has learned in his time as a priest is just how indispensable the family is in the life of the Church. The committed love of a husband and wife and their children is “so essential,” he reflected.

“If there’s no family, it’s so difficult, I would say maybe impossible in my experience, for the Church to exist,” he said. “Families are the Church.”

Fr. Gardner said his parents’ example in raising their nine children helped him discover his vocation to the priesthood.

“I had a mom and a dad who worked through all their difficulties with prayer, with a sense of humor. All of us kids in some way – in some deep way – benefitted from that,” he said.

Like Bishop Kagan, Fr. Gardner said “by far” his favorite part of being a priest is the privilege of celebrating the Holy Mass.

“Raising the host and chalice to the Heavenly Father, offering him our Lord Jesus in union with the Holy Spirit – there’s no doubt that’s what I live and breathe for.”


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