Surprise invitation led Father Gitter to archdiocese; now he works in Rome

| October 17, 2018 | 0 Comments

Father Paul Gitter never expected to come to the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

Father Gitter, 62, was hosting a vocations night for youth at his western Wisconsin parish in January 1996 when Father Peter Christensen, then rector of St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, presented at the event. He invited Father Gitter to serve at the seminary as an adjunct spiritual director.

“And that’s how the Holy Spirit made it all happen,” Father Gitter said.

After two decades of ministering to college-level seminarians at St. John Vianney, Father Gitter officially became a priest of the archdiocese in September. The process, called “incardination,” allows for a priest to change dioceses long term at the approval of the bishops of both dioceses involved. The incardination was finalized in September.

“The archdiocese was starting to feel like it was my home,” explained Father Gitter, who was ordained in 1993 for the Diocese of La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Father Paul Gitter

Father Gitter, a Stevens Point, Wisconsin, native, worked in the music publishing industry before responding to a call to the priesthood. He studied at Mundelein Seminary in Chicago for the La Crosse Diocese.

Following ordination, he served as parochial vicar at St. Mark in Rothschild, Wisconsin. He then became pastor of Christ the King in Spencer, Wisconsin, in 1994.

Vocations to the priesthood were a major interest for him early on.

“That’s right about the point where the priest shortage was starting to become evident,” Father Gitter said. “It’s when we started asking priests to take two parishes and things like that, so I thought, ‘We need more vocations, and we need to do something.’”

By his third year of priesthood in 1995, he was pastor of three Wisconsin parishes: Holy Guardian Angels in Brackett, St. Anthony in Augusta and St. John the Apostle in Fall Creek. During that assignment, he formed a vocations committee that worked with him on hosting the vocations night in January 1996. Members of the committee wanted him to invite a priest from a seminary to speak. With St. Paul having the closest seminaries, he reached out to St. John Vianney, but had low expectations he’d find a speaker. He said he really didn’t believe a priest would drive three hours “in the dead of winter” for it.

“But they insisted that we should ask,” Father Gitter said the committee.

Father Christensen obliged to be part of the program, which also included a religious sister and monk speaking on vocations and answering questions.

“So he drove three hours through the dead of a winter night to get there for that presentation, which kind of shocked me,” Father Gitter said of Father Christensen, now the bishop of Boise, Idaho.

Father Gitter invited him to stay at the rectory, and the two discussed the priesthood, seminary formation and vocations. It ultimately led to Father Christensen inviting Father Gitter to serve on the seminary’s staff.

Father Gitter became an adjunct spiritual director at St. John Vianney in 1996 while continuing to serve in the La Crosse Diocese until 2007. His role became full-time at the seminary in August 2007 at the request of Father Bill Baer, who was rector at the time. The seminary was experiencing a significant increase in enrollment.

“I just fell in love with being a spiritual director, especially for seminarians,” Father Gitter said. “I felt very strongly the Lord’s presence in that work and a strong sense that he wanted me to continue doing this type of work.”

Father Gitter served at St. John Vianney until 2017, but he took a new post with the seminary in Rome at the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

Through the Catholic Studies program at the University of St. Thomas, where St. John Vianney seminarians study, nine seminarians are studying at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. The seminarians live at the Pontifical Irish College in Rome.

“The benefit, of course, is they’re in the heart of the Church,” said Father Gitter, who serves as the formator for the seminarians in Rome. “It’s very, very complicated trying to do formation in a foreign culture, just trying to get a program up and running in a place that doesn’t operate the way things operate back in St. Paul. We make a lot of adjustments, and we learn to be extremely flexible.”

His work involves the “external formation” rather than the “internal formation” of spiritual direction. He said external formation includes observing how seminarians are doing academically, participating in seminary community life and arranging trips in Rome. That included taking seminarians to St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City Oct. 3 for the first Mass with Pope Francis for the Bishops’ synod on young people, the faith and vocational discernment, which goes through Oct. 28.


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