Bishop Paul Zipfel always intrigued me. There he sat (after concelebrating the noon Mass) in the Benedictine dining center, humble and content. He's usually surrounded by U-Mary folks, but this time he sat solo. I couldn't pass up this unique opportunity to exact wisdom from this great man.
EB: How did it come to be that you’re residing in St. Joseph’s residence hall here at the University of Mary?
BZ: It was a great surprise to me when a couple of years ago Msgr. Shea invited me to come up for a conversation and he suggested that maybe I could spend my retirement here. I thought it was rather attractive so I responded positively to that.
EB: What do you think of it thus far?
BZ: I didn’t know what I was going to walk in to, but it turns out that I found a great group of young people. They couldn’t be nicer to me. It’s a wonderful opportunity for me to have some chances to talk with the kids, to find out a little bit about where they’re from. It does lead me to think that something good happened while they were in our elementary schools, our high schools and continues to go on particularly here.
EB: How are you enjoying retirement? How are you feeling?
BZ: It certainly has been a very interesting time of my life. You have a lot of freedom to do many things, and yet at the same time you don’t have the energy to do a lot of things. So, as a result there are things that I struggle with a little bit.
EB: Where do you spend your summer break?
BZ: I spend a lot of time with my brother Ralph in St. Louis. He’s the only one that has a free house. (Laughs) We get along fairly well together. He’s eight years older and I continue to be amazed at how he does so well. I appreciate that opportunity. I also spend some time with other good friends in the St. Louis area.
EB: Which aspect of active priestly ministry do you miss the most?
BZ: One thing I’m not able to do so easily is to be the principal celebrant at the Mass anymore. Most of the time, I’m concelebrating. I appreciate the fact that that’s still the celebration, but I miss not being able to stand at the altar and to lead the community in prayer. It’s something that I miss, but it’s OK, God is still being praised, that’s the way I look at it.
EB: What is your current day-in and day-out routine?
BZ: Stay out of the way of the real bishop! (Laughs)
EB: Tell me about your relationship with Bishop Kagan.
BZ: We’ve gotten along very well together. He couldn’t be nicer to me. I didn’t know him until the day he came [to be introduced as Bismarck’s seventh bishop]. For not having known anything about each other, it’s a great feeling to know that you’re welcome. He’s been very gracious to me.
EB: Do you think he has done a good job of filling your shoes?
BZ: I think he has done a marvelous job. I couldn’t have asked for a better bishop. I know that he has done a lot for the diocese. He’s a very clear thinker. He knows what he wants to do, he plans it, he accomplishes what he has planned, and that’s why things have continued to move forward with the diocese.
This past October at the THIRST Conference you were able to catch up with Cardinal Dolan…is he as awesome as he seems?
BZ: He is awesome! Totally! There’s no guile in him. I’m convinced that he is a real apostle for the Lord. He’s so gifted. He’s just a really wonderful man.
EB: You were in seminary with him?
BZ: That’s right; he was a couple of years behind me. He spoke about me being someone that he looked to for guidance and direction, but I think it was the other way around more than anything else.
EB: Did you ever have an opportunity to meet Blessed John Paul II?
BZ: John Paul II was a great man, a beautiful person. I remember so well the times that we had assisted at his private Mass. He would be there already when we arrived, praying with us and for us. That was a great experience…a time of great blessing.
EB: This past fall we experienced a lockdown at U-Mary…and you lead students in your hall in the recitation of the rosary. Can you take me through that whole experience?
BZ: I was kind of surprised by it all. I had never been through a lockdown before. We gathered in the common room and one of the teachers came up and said, ‘Bishop, wouldn’t it be nice if you could lead us in the rosary?’ and I said, ‘I’d be very glad to.’ The students all responded beautifully. It was handled very well.
EB: Can you shed some light on how you became a magician?
BZ: I started that when I was a senior in high school. It was something that I saw as an opportunity to let kids know that I was “for them.” That turned out to be a good thing. My mother didn’t think so at the very beginning. She said, “Paul, that’s not appropriate.” She wasn’t so sure that it was going to lead to anything good. I thank God for giving me some talent and not making me all thumbs!
EB: Can your magic skills be used as an evangelization tool?
BZ: In a way it is! They always used to ask me at confirmation to show them a little trick. I tried not to over-emphasize it, but they got to know me, and when I visited the grade schools they felt at ease. All that was part of it. I felt a little like St. John Bosco.
EB: Is there a particular feast day or liturgical season that you’ve always held close to your heart?
BZ: I always enjoyed the Easter Triduum. It’s such a beautiful time. It’s a good chance to touch people’s hearts with what you did and also, what you said. In other words, the liturgy is not only something we express with our voice, but with our heart and everything about it.
EB: I know you’re a St. Louis Cardinals fan, is there a chance that they will repeat as National League champions?
BZ: We can hope and pray for it! I’m a great Cardinal fan and I haven’t lost my love for them.
EB: What do you think of the direction that the diocese of Bismarck is heading?
BZ: Every time I pick up the paper I say, “My goodness sakes, we’re doing something else.”…And it’s great. I wouldn’t take any other diocese over Bismarck as a place where a man can come to really learn how to be a good priest. I really mean that.
EB: On March 18, you will be a priest for 53 years. What stands out to you the most about your priesthood?
BZ: The main thing is the opportunity to celebrate the Mass. That’s number one. I never get over that grace to go on and really thank God for choosing me as one of his priests. To do whatever I can to make the Church a church of great apostolic endeavor.
Baker is from Laguna Niguel, Calif. and is a travelling admissions representative for the University of Mary. He’s a graduate of Franciscan University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism.
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