Most priests look back on their ordination day with great joy and fondness, but Father Mark Gurtner recalled that he was so ill that “ordination and even my first Mass was a blur,” he said.
The illness that continued through the next seven months did not portend anything detrimental to his priestly vocation, however, as evidenced by his 25 fruitful years in the priesthood so far.
In his position as vicar general, Father Gurtner is well-known throughout the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend. In his younger years, though, the priesthood was far from his mind. Born in Auburn as the oldest of four children, Father Gurtner was “very active in the parish” of Immaculate Conception as a young man, playing guitar and singing for various parish ministries. “When people see a young man very active like that, they say, ‘oh, you’re going to be a priest.’ And I really did not want to entertain that thought at all. I had no desire.”
Instead, he wanted to attend the University of Notre Dame and practice civil law. But as a senior in high school, he attended midnight Mass on Christmas Eve; while watching the priest at the altar, “I had this really clear thought in mind that that’s something I might want to do, to be a priest.” He recognizes that moment as “the seed that God was planting” and the beginning of his openness to the calling.
After attending two years of college, one at St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer and one at Indiana University, where he became involved in parish life, he was finally ready for the seminary. Bishop John M. D’Arcy accepted his application for the priesthood and sent him to St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, Massachusetts.
His early hopes for law school came true in a unique way when Bishop D’Arcy chose him to study canon law. He remarked that “I find canon law to be way more interesting than civil law would have been. Civil law is important … but canon law is dealing with the stuff of eternity in the Church. I love canon law.”
Father Gurtner has already had a distinguished ministry. He began studying canon law while at his first assignment as associate pastor, St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Fort Wayne and chaplain/teacher at Bishop Dwenger High School. He remained at both for nine years before moving to Our Lady of Good Hope in Fort Wayne as pastor for four years and beginning work in the Marriage Tribunal. He was then appointed pastor at St. Anthony de Padua in South Bend and adjutant judicial vicar in the South Bend tribunal.
When Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades came to the diocese, he relocated Father Gurtner to Fort Wayne, to his former parish of Our Lady of Good Hope, and appointed him judicial vicar over the entire diocese. For a period of about five years, he also taught a class on canon law at the University of Notre Dame. In 2017, he was appointed vicar general of the diocese.
Some of the things that he has been able to accomplish in 25 years of his vocation include renovations and some new construction at Our Lady of Good Hope. Under his leadership, a new rectory was built in 2006; upon his return to the parish, extensive church renovations were undertaken, transforming it into a bright, artful and inviting sanctuary. At the same time, new parish offices were built, and the old offices were renovated into classrooms to create a new school — a project spearheaded by parents in the parish.
Throughout his priesthood, Father Gurtner stated that his greatest joy has been “forming people in the parish. I really like to preach, so Sunday Mass preaching is very fulfilling because you really have the opportunity to help people in their Christian duty.”
Judging marriage cases in the tribunal comes in a close second. Reading about people’s journeys and helping them move forward by applying Church law to their situation brought great fulfilment to him.
Priests’ lives, Father Gurtner admitted, are very full “in the sense of almost everything we do are huge moments: burying people, marrying people, being at somebody’s bedside when they’re dying. There are just so many of those kinds of things in 25 years that it’s just a life that’s so full.”
He recalled being called to the bedside of a parishioner’s mother who was not Catholic and the “profound” experience of being able to baptize, confirm and administer the Eucharist to her prior to her passing. “For us priests, that’s almost a daily occurrence kind of thing.
Even with all his duties, he still finds time in the practice of a well-balanced life to golf and to read. He also has been able to visit many religious sites throughout the world, including numerous locations in Italy, Fatima and Lourdes: Lourdes is one of his favorite sites. A World War II buff, he was honored to say Mass at a cemetery chapel in Normandy for all the soldiers who died to liberate Europe from Nazi Germany.
While he did not become a traditional lawyer as he had intended, Father Gurtner has found joy abundant in the priestly ministry and canon law studies to which he has been called. “That’s how God works: He fulfills our desires, in a way that’s best – His way.”
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