By Mark Haney
The Catholic Times
ANN ARBOR — In their search for meaning and direction, teens often turn to music, to sports, to drugs, to peers.
James Mangan turned to God.
He never turned back, either, and was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Lansing at an ordination rite on Saturday, June 23, at St. Mary Cathedral in Lansing.
But his route to the priesthood has its roots in his high school years, when the second youngest of the six children of Rick and Sue Mangan was a student at Fr. Gabriel Richard High School.
He began a prayer life, going to adoration and praying the rosary.
“I think it was a search for meaning and direction in my life,” the 28-year-old Ann Arbor native said. “I think most young people at a certain point hit a crossroad where they start to ask questions about where their life is going and what the meaning is. I think that was the catalyst for me to turn to God and take to heart what had been handed me by so many people.
“I think I was really surprised. I thought, ‘well, I’ll do this,’ but I was surprised by God’s response in the prayers and that He is a living God. I think that kind of knocked me off my feet.”
No one incident changed him, he said, “but just that God, in a very personal way, loved me and had a plan for my life. That was a revelation and planted the seed of a priestly vocation.”
Still, he did not immediately make that change. Instead, he went on to Eastern Michigan University, where he got a bachelor’s degree in music.
“I always loved music,” said Mangan, who plays classical guitar. “It was something I was passionate about and I wasn’t passionate about much else. I wasn’t really sure I’d use it as a career option but I knew I’d play it for the rest of my life so it would be worth the investment.”
But he did more than just study at EMU. He got involved in different ministries on campus and at the Newman Center,
“My instinct was that I wanted to share what I had received,” he said, speaking of the faith he’d been given by his parents and at Huron Valley School and Gabriel Richard, “so I started doing that more and more.”
He was reading the Holy Trinity Student Parish bulletin one day, “something I had not done at my local parish (Christ the King in Ann Arbor)” he said, “and I read something about a discernment group. I wasn’t really acquainted with the word but they asked ‘Have you considered becoming a Catholic priest?’ I think someone had mentioned that before to me but for whatever reason, at that moment and at that time I first felt the call. It just made sense with what I was doing with the rest of my life. This is the most important thing to me and this is what I am spending a lot of my extra time doing, so why not spend my whole life doing it? It made sense in that moment.”
Becoming a priest was not really a conscious choice, he added.
“In a very natural way, this is what God made me to do,” he said. “I think once I saw that, it wasn’t something I had to really sit down and lay out my options and figure out how to do it. For me it was just a natural, instinctual thing.
“I never looked back from that moment. Sure, there have been trials throughout the seminary experience, but it has never been something I have had to consciously choose. It feels like this is what God made me to be and I am just responding to that.”
The decision was not a surprise to his family.
“He didn’t show this immediately, but there was an idealism there that started to express itself when he was at Eastern,” said his father. “He was talking about the priesthood even as he dated in college.”
“I wasn’t shocked when he told me that he has responded to the call,” said Naomi Dillen of Saline, his oldest sister. “He has a gentle spirit. He is different than a lot of people. I think he was gifted and this is something he would be good at.”
After college, he went to St. John Vianney Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., for pre-theology. Then he spent the past four years at North American College in Rome.
“Quite simply, the bishop just asked me and my classmate — we are a class of just two — if we would like to go,” he said. “The diocese hadn’t sent anyone for a while and that year he wanted to send someone, so he decided to send both of us. It was a bit of a surprise but I was honored, said yes and never looked back.”
Despite the multi-cultural life that fills Ann Arbor, the change was eye-opening.
“It certainly was something new,” he said. “You are living in a different country with people who, for the most part, you have never met. At first the transition is a little long. But I learned they are good men and I have a lot of good friends from there.
“It has been a blessed experience to be there,” he added. “It is far away from home and far away from my diocesan brothers, which has been difficult at times. But certainly there was unique grace to be so close to the Holy Father and so many of the saints and to experience the universal church. I will bring that into my priesthood and hopefully bless others through that. I am very, very grateful for that experience, that chance.”
He enjoyed studying at the University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome, where he met the Dominicans.
“It was a life-changing experience of theology and really kind of changed who I am and in a very real way will change the people I will serve,” he said. “I think there are many graces at all of the universities because you are studying God and the Church and the treasuries of our faith, but in a particular way I think I learned so much about the riches of the moral life and the riches Christ has given us through the Holy Spirit and the sacraments. I think they really opened up, in a particular way, that dimension of the faith, which had not been opened to me before.”
He got to study with Fr. Wojciech Giertych, O.P., the papal theologian, who taught moral theology.
“His courses were life-changing on how really Christ lives in us and lives through us in our actions,” Mangan said, “and how dynamic that is and how the power of grace helps us be what God created us to be. And how prayer and the sacraments fit into that whole dynamic. It changed the way we pray and the way we live the faith and I think it will change the way the people we serve pray and live their lives in Christ.”
Speaking days before his pending ordination, he said, “It is surreal to think it is coming up so soon. But I have a great sense of peace and joy. I think I have maybe a million people praying for me, so in a real way I can feel that, that prayer, and feel it calming me and protecting me and giving me encouragement to say ‘yes’ and to step forward into this life God has prepared for me.”
His sister, however, sees the difference in him.
“To see where his now,” said Dillen, “is amazing.”
His first assignment is at St. Patrick Parish in Brighton. “It is not far from home,” he said, “which is kind of nice since I have been on the road for the past six years.”
He spent his first internship there with Fr. Karl Pung. He also interned with Fr. Andrew Czajkowski at St. John the Evangelist in Davison.
“I have been blessed to be at those parishes,” he said, “and to get an introduction to pastoral ministry. That is going to help.”
That allows him to begin his priesthood, he said, with hope.
“I think my hope is that I am able to help people to know Christ and His church and to help them live their lives within Him,” he said. “I think that, in a general way, but also in a very authentic way, is the mission of the priest. It touches every dynamic — family life, baptisms, marriage, vocations, visiting people in the hospital, funerals, consoling families in difficult situations — Christ is with us in that through all of these experiences He wants us to live more in the reality of His love and to spend the rest of eternity with Him. My hope is that through the priesthood I am able to help people to live their faith in Christ in a deeper way and certainly in a more ‘life is Christ’ kind of way and to see Him in all things.”
In the meantime, he also reacquainting himself with American cuisine.
“It feels good,” he said of being back in the U.S. “It feels like being home. I am glad to be home.”