Father Gifford let go of music aspirations to say ‘yes’ to God

| May 28, 2019 | 0 Comments

Father Joseph Gifford traded the stage for the sanctuary. The 27-year-old newly ordained priest was on track for a promising career in opera when he discerned God was calling him to the priesthood.

Father Joseph Gifford

Dave Hrbacek / The Catholic Spirit

“I can’t delay this any longer,” he recalls thinking at the end of his senior year in college, when he was deciding between seminary and graduate studies in music. “I know this (priesthood) is where God has been leading me for the last three or four years.”

Father Gifford played the piano and baritone as a child, but he first took music seriously as a junior in high school, when he was enrolled in the Post Secondary Enrollment Options program at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Coon Rapids. That year, he joined its selective chamber singers. Then, his senior year, he took the lead in the college’s production of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Elijah.”

Despite his natural talent, he wasn’t considering going professional when he enrolled at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, in 2010. He wanted to major in theology and nursing — the latter inspired by years working as a lifeguard. But, by the end of his first semester, his interest in nursing had waned. And the idea of priesthood popped in his head.

It wasn’t the first time. He started thinking about it during his junior or senior year in high school. ‘“I would love to be a monk someday or something like that,’” he recalls thinking, “but I had other plans for myself.”

Father Gifford grew up in Ham Lake as the third child in a family of four boys. For much of his childhood, he could walk across his backyard to the grounds of his parish, St. Paul. His parents, Doug and Elaine Gifford, were involved in different ministries, and Father Gifford was a regular daily Mass server while in middle school. He developed a deep admiration for Father Jon Vander Ploeg, the parish’s pastor at the time. (He has since been assigned to St. Lawrence Catholic Church and Newman Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.)

On Christmas break of his freshman year, Father Gifford told Father Vander Ploeg he wanted to transfer to St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul. But Father Vander Ploeg encouraged him to finish the year at Benedictine before making a decision to transfer.

He did, and he began taking music classes — and he loved them.

That summer, he returned to Minnesota and Father Vander Ploeg guided him through a 30-day retreat that included two daily holy hours before the Blessed Sacrament. At the end of the retreat, Father Gifford felt confident that he should enter seminary after finishing his degrees at Benedictine. But, he still felt restless about his discernment process until a friend gave him advice that seemed to stick: “Joe,” she told him, “your vocation right now is to be a student. Worry about that, do that well, (and) everything else will fall into place.”

That truth gave him peace and grounded him through the rest of college, where he continued with music and theology and made great strides as a vocalist. By the end of his senior year in 2014, he had job offers to teach music and had sent applications to several graduate-level music programs. He was accepted at each one.

At the same time, he sent an application to St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul. Despite his musical aspirations, he felt God repeatedly affirming his call to the priesthood.

When he was accepted at St. Paul Seminary, he took that as God’s “yes.” He entered that fall, and he hasn’t looked back.

“I did the vast majority of discernment at Benedictine,” he explained. “When I came to seminary, this was, ‘OK, God, I think you’re calling me to be a priest. I’ve done my discernment; now it’s time for the Church to do hers.’”

Father Gifford’s teaching parish for three years was St. John Neumann in Eagan. Prior to that, he served in the University of St. Thomas’ campus ministry. He also spent time in ministry at the Ramsey County jail and the VA Medical Center in Minneapolis, where he also worked with homeless veterans.

“It’s given me a wide taste of the human experience — to meet people from all walks of life,” he said of his varied pastoral experiences. “It’s being able to stretch myself so I can learn to bring Christ to everyone.”

A committed kickboxer and avid reader — especially of Russian literature — Father Gifford hasn’t had to abandon the stage entirely. In April, he played the role of the narrator — the largest role — in the seminary’s production of “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.”

Father Gifford’s first assignment as a priest takes effect June 12, as parochial vicar of All Saints in Lakeville.

Father Gifford has continued to feel affirmed in his calling throughout seminary, he said. He loves preaching, something as a deacon he was able to do during Masses.

Speaking to The Catholic Spirit before his May 25 ordination at the Cathedral of St. Paul in St Paul, he said that he was also looking forward to hearing confessions as a priest.

“You experience people at such a vulnerable moment in their lives,” he explained. He anticipated it would be a place of experiencing the “deep fatherhood” of the priesthood, he said. “You’re able to show that you care for this other person in a deep way … and you’re able to give advice … even if it’s just a little bit.”

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Category: Ordinations