Fr. Paul Gebhardt
One-On-One With Fr. Paul
By Scott Gilliam (Parishioner)
As the parish prepares to celebrate the 25th anniversary of Fr. Paul’s ordination, I was asked to interview Fr. Paul and write an article to help the parishioners get to know him a little bit better. After interviewing Fr. Paul in his office on May 12, 2016, I wrote a short article about him which appeared in the church bulletin on May 29, 2016. Since we covered so many interesting topics and enjoyed such great conversation, I offered to write this longer version to provide the parish with a more in-depth look at our parish pastor.
Fr. Paul was born on December 15, 1961 and raised in the Dayton area in a large family with six children. Fr. Paul spoke fondly of his parents, both of whom have passed away. Fr. Paul said that his mother (Emma Jean) was a housewife with the full time job of raising “all us kids,” which “surely gained her sainthood.” His father (Martin) was a pneumatics operator in a factory with a very strong work ethic (he went into work on many Christmases and Thanksgivings to keep the machines running). Fr. Paul is the second youngest of the six children (a girl and 5 boys), two of whom are deceased.
Fr. Paul said he grew up in a family with a very strong faith. But like many practicing Catholics in the 1960s, Fr. Paul isn’t sure that his parents “quite knew what to do” with Vatican II and “how to pass it on to us.” His older brothers and sister were teenagers as Vatican II was being implemented, which generated a lot of “questioning” and “pulling” in his family. Today, Fr. Paul and his sister are the only practicing Catholics among his living siblings.
Fr. Paul had his own period of “doubting” and “questioning” early in high school (“I had kind of fallen away”). But that ended when Fr. Paul had a “conversion experience or a reawakening” late in his junior year of high school as he was driving home from a fishing trip on the U.S. 35 bypass near Xenia. On that drive home he came to a break in the trees and was suddenly confronted with a “beautiful, gorgeous sunset” and felt the Lord touch him in that exact moment (this is why Fr. Paul has a painting of a sunset hanging in his office). As he looked at the sunset Fr. Paul vividly recalls feeling “just how much [God] loves me” and “loves the universe.” He said the experience “was life changing, immediately” and set him on a trail of “what do we do with this, how do I express this?”
Although his parents could not afford to send him to Catholic schools, Fr. Paul said that “wasn’t such a bad thing” since it allowed him to make friends from many different faiths. He added that having friends of different faiths allowed him to “decipher” what was different and what was the same from faith to faith. Interestingly, it was during his time in public high school that Fr. Paul first had thoughts of entering the priesthood, shortly after his sunset experience on the drive home from the fishing trip. He thought about it more when he was a senior in high school, but got cold feet after mentioning it to his parents: “It was like suddenly I had written them a ticket to heaven and I thought, sorry, can’t deal with that right now.”
Fr. Paul’s post high school studies took him on an interesting journey to the priesthood. His college studies began at Wright State University, where he studied journalism for two years. He gave up on journalism and transferred to the University of Dayton after he was asked by a college newspaper editor to change the facts in a story he was writing. While studying education at Dayton Fr. Paul took some comparative religion classes which he greatly enjoyed and “really sealed” his decision to seek the priesthood. As Fr. Paul explained, he literally had a conversation with God one morning on the way to classes at UD which “went sort of like, OK, I’ll try it, just leave me alone.”
Fr. Paul then transferred to Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus to finish his college degree. He said he really needed the time at the Josephinum seminary college since he had not gone to Catholic schools and that his immersion in Catholic studies at Josephinum was really good for him. He graduated with a college degree from Josephinum in 1986 and then started seminary at the Athenaeum, where he graduated with a Master of Divinity in 1991 and entered the priesthood. Fr. Paul began his priesthood teaching and doing campus ministry work in Catholic high schools (Fenwick, Springfield Catholic Central and LaSalle) from 1991 to 2005. His first assignment as a parish priest came in 2005, when he was appointed pastor of St. Vivian in Finneytown, where he stayed until coming to OLOS last July.
Fr. Paul said that celebrating Mass and celebrating the sacraments are some of his favorite duties as a priest. Fr. Paul also enjoys the ministry of confession and tries to avoid turning down requests for confession since he knows how important they are. What he loves the most about being a priest: “the people and serving God.” His least favorite thing is administrating.
Fr. Paul described his one-on-one work with parishioners as the “most profound accomplishment” in his priesthood, especially given an early fear that he would be a “lousy, lousy priest.” He loves helping people “get straight with the Lord” and finds it to be his most meaningful and most humbling work. He relishes being let into a person’s life in a sacred way that can help them get on the right path. (Fr. Paul said this might seem surprising since he comes across as a quiet and private person.) Putting it yet another way, Fr. Paul said that “confessions and interacting with people is where I am at my best, just faith sharing and talking to people about faith, this is the most meaningful to me, and this is where I really connect with people and their stories.”
When I asked Fr. Paul about the Bible, he replied that he “just loves scripture.” His favorite parable is the prodigal son, which teaches us that God loves us no matter how bad we screw up. Fr. Paul’s favorite scripture in times of fear, worry or despair is the 23rd Psalm.
On the topic of prayer, Fr. Paul told me that The Blessed Mother and St. Paul are the images he uses to go to his “prayer place,” but he quickly added that he often “takes the Lord with him” on busy days and asks him throughout the day, “Ok, Lord, what do you want done in this?” On preaching, Fr. Paul said he just wants it to be authentic; if his homilies aren’t frilly or don’t have a lot of stories or technical merit, he doesn’t care. All that matters is “Did I talk about the Lord and reach people where they’re really at?” Regarding his most memorable homilies, Fr. Paul said that he is very proud of the homily he gives to first communicants, “Bob the Angel.” On spiritual reading, Fr. Paul said he really enjoys reading Henri Nouwen.
Fr. Paul’s “papal heroes” are St. John Paul II and Pope Francis. Regarding John Paul II, Fr. Paul admired him because of his “great wisdom and courage,” adding that “when he was still in Poland it took a lot for him to stand up and do what he did.” As Pope, Fr. Paul admires John Paul II for “just tirelessly pushing the church forward” and for his teaching on theology of the body. Regarding Pope Francis, Fr. Paul lovingly called him “a man after my own heart” since he doesn’t mind the “messiness of life” and “doesn’t set out to bludgeon people over the head” with rules or “beat them into the dirt.” He also has high praise for the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis: “I think we’ve made some Pharisees, some moralizing busy bodies, the Year of Mercy rescues the Church from the moralizing busy bodies.”
Fr. Paul really likes OLOS and has big dreams for the parish. His “biggest dream” is that the parish grows in the way it needs to and the way it wants to.” Fr. Paul said “we can’t avoid growth, it’s coming in over the top of us,” so we need to be “in a place to respond to that growth” and to “position ourselves so we aren’t playing catch-up but are ready to welcome everyone.” Fr. Paul also made it clear that the only vision that matters for the parish is the Lord’s: “if what we do here doesn’t end up fulfilling my vision of parish, who cares; far more important is the Lord’s vision for our parish.” Fr. Paul also likes the idea of “lighting a fire under our adult faith, and really stirring things up there.” In this regard, Fr. Paul is very interested in offering retreats at OLOS and will be reaching out to parishioners with an interest in helping get such a ministry organized and off the ground. But he realizes that retreats need to be “refreshed every now and then” and is willing to look at “something new, maybe one we haven’t even heard of yet.”
Away from his pastoral duties, Fr. Paul loves woodworking and leather work and studying archaeology and history. Regarding spiritual travel, Fr. Paul told me he has visited the Holy Land, which he greatly enjoyed because it put images with so many stories in the Bible. He said that visiting the Vatican is on his bucket list.
Taking into account our entire conversation, I asked Fr. Paul to state his greatest hope: “When it’s all done the Lord says, ‘You did a good job.’”