It has been 40 years since Bishop Kevin W. Vann was ordained a priest.
The date was May 30, 1981 and four decades later the current religious leader of the Diocese of Orange remembers that time quite clearly.
“I lost my voice the day before,” recalled Bishop Vann.
He was at home in Springfield, Illinois and it was hot. At the time he didn’t have an air conditioner, so he slept in front of large fans which he thinks were the culprits. He also recounts driving himself to his ordination at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, a route that was very familiar.
“I’d driven by the cathedral hundreds of times, but this time I was driving up there and there’s a bell tower in the cathedral and I thought, ‘Jeepers, it’s going to be different today because I’m going to be a priest.’”
Bishop Vann didn’t always know he would one day enter the priesthood. The oldest of six children – five boys and one girl – he grew up in a solidly Catholic household. His mother Theresa worked as a maternity nurse at a nearby Catholic hospital and held a special devotion to the Blessed Mother. His father William was a convert, being inspired to join the Catholic Church because of the example his wife had set for him.
The family attended Mass together and prayed the Rosary regularly. Bishop Vann attended Catholic school and was influenced by his aunt who was a sister.
“We were around nuns a lot,” he said. “And the priests were really good — a couple of them especially made me think about this life, this vocation.”
Bishop attended Springfield’s St. Agnes Grade and Griffin High schools. He studied at Springfield College and in 1974 he received a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois.
After graduation, Bishop Vann worked as a medical technologist for three years at St. John’s Hospital in Springfield – the same hospital where his mom Theresa had cared for mothers and babies.
Being around the sick and the dying, Bishop Vann said he began to seriously consider another life path for himself.
He eventually decided to leave his job and enter the seminary in 1976. Five years later he was ordained.
“Your call gets tested all the way along,” he said, looking back on his time n the seminary.
The very day he was ordained was the day he knew for sure that being a priest was his true calling. He went on to receive his diploma in Latin Letters from Pontifical Gregorian University in 1984 and his canon law degree from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome in 1985.
“I enjoyed my years in Rome,” said Bishop, where he learned to speak the Italian language.
Upon returning to the Diocese of Springfield, then-Father Vann was involved in the work of the Diocesan Tribunal and the Tribunal of Second Instance in Chicago. He served as pastor of parishes ranging in size from 35 to 1,300 families, two of which had schools. Having been educated within the Catholic school system, Bishop Vann believes Catholic education profoundly influences its students.
“If you ask anyone who went to a Catholic school, they will say who they are, their convictions and their faith, were pretty much formed by their Catholic school education.”
Bishop Vann enjoys working with students and during his nine years as Bishop of Orange he has made guest appearances in several high school theatrical productions within the Diocese.
Prior to being named bishop, he taught canon law at his alma mater Kenrick Seminary in St. Louis and held many parish appointments including pastor of Blessed Sacrament Parish in Springfield. He also served as vicar for priests and was the diocesan contact for the Hispanic Ministry.
Fluent in Spanish [he also continues to learn Vietnamese], he first learned the language as a parish priest so he could work with the Mexican immigrants who lived nearby. One time, he was dining at a Mexican restaurant in Illinois when workers approached him and asked if there were any Spanish Masses they could attend.
Since there were no Spanish Masses to speak of, Bishop Vann started going it closed to say Mass in Spanish.
“I’ve been very grateful for every appointment I’ve had,” he said. “Several of my assignments I didn’t really want to go, but I’m glad I did.”
He says that being invited into people’s lives as a parish priest in all kids of moments has deepened his gratitude.
BISHOP OF FORT WORTH
Bishop Vann was ordained and installed as the third bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Fort Worth on July 13, 2005. During his 7 ½ years leading the expanding and increasingly diverse diocese, he worked closely with bishops through the Texas Catholic Conference and Region X. He is the former Texas Bishops’ Liaison to the Texas Mission Council and Texas Catholic hospitals. He was known for his dynamic leadership and personable, down-to-earth nature, not to mention his cowboy boots.
On September 12, 2012, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Bishop Vann as the fourth Bishop of Orange. As a child, it was a big deal to go to his grandparents’ house on a Sunday evening and watch Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color and he was a big fan of The Mickey Mouse Club. He always said he’d like to go to Disneyland someday – and now he goes once a week and even has a Magic Pass.
“I’ve been grateful to be here, and I love California,” he said. “It’s a challenge but most states are a challenge, not just here.”
Bishop Vann doesn’t actually like to use the word challenge – he prefers the word opportunity. As the leader of the 10th largest diocese in the country and home to a large and diverse Catholic population, that opportunity is to present the Gospel and to give people hope.
In keeping with this theme of hope, Bishop Vann recites St. Teresa’s Bookmark daily:
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things are passing;
God only is changeless.
Patience gains all things.
Who has God wants nothing.
God alone suffices.
In his spare time, besides visiting Disneyland, Bishop Vann enjoys a good book, a good walk and good dinner conversation with friends. He is a talented piano player, owing Sister James Marie for teaching him how to play in grade school. He also has a fondness for hats which started out as sun protection and has evolved into a collection of hundreds.
In addition to celebrating 40 years in the religious life, Bishop Vann also turned 70 years-old on May 10. He said he has much to be grateful for this year.
“Not that life has always been easy, but I’m very grateful for the opportunities I’ve had.”