by ROWENA OREJANA
Who better to form men into priests than one who is still passionate about his vocation after 17 years?
The new Holy Cross director of formation, Michael Gielen, loves priesthood.“For me it’s a great, great joy and a great privilege to be a priest. And I’ve always had that. Ever since I was about 10, I’ve felt called to be a priest,” he said.
“It was, I suppose you could call, a mark on my being. [There is] just a sense that God was calling me to do something different.”
Fr Gielen was one of the last priests from Holy Cross in Mosgiel to be ordained, in 1997. He has worked in the parishes of Gisborne, Franklin, Hamilton and Mt Maunganui. At Mt Maunganui, he was also vocations director, a role he enjoyed. He worked with young men and women discerning religious life.
The parish started a pre-seminary programme where Fr Gielen got involved in guiding men wanting to become priests. It was in this context that Bishop Denis Browne informed him of his appointment.
“On one level, I was excited because I loved it. It was always a joy working with young men wanting to be priests. I was enjoying the vocations ministry,” he said. “But on another level, I was petrified. I thought, ‘How am I going to do this?’ Seminary life, as you
know, is much more academic, much more full. It’s like the difference between going from being a player to being a coach.”
But he is a big believer in divine providence. “If the bishop asks you, there’s a reason. So I said yes to going.”
The next two years were challenging. He went to language school in Perugia for three months, then to a course for a licenciate in theology, majoring in formation, from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome.“While the language was always a struggle, overall it was just a great blessing to be there,” he said.
The highlight in Rome was standing in the middle of St Peter’s Square as the white smoke plumed from the Sistine Chapel chimney, signalling the election of Pope Francis in 2013. “I’ve only ever seen the smoke once, and it was white. There were only about 10,000
when the smoke went up. An hour later, there were over 100,000. I felt them [the crowd] pushing as they moved in. To have been there was one of the greatest privileges of my life: to see him come out and to bow and ask ‘please bless me’,” he said.
He came back to take over from then Fr Stephen Lowe, now Bishop of Hamilton.
“I was concerned about the big change in my life from my eclectic lifestyle as a priest, when there were so many demands in your life to a stable consistent lifestyle here which is intense. The role of the priest is more GP, whereas here it’s more specialist,” he said.
Fr Gielen sees his role as a guide, taking his cue from St Pope John Paul II’s evangelical exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis. “My role is to help the seminarian to mould his personality so it becomes a bridge to meet Jesus, not an obstacle,” he said.
With nine home-grown New Zealanders and 14 ESOL (English as a second language) students, he said it is almost like running two seminaries. “Definitely you get a very unique insight from different cultures. What is an issue or what is a concern for the Asian seminarian is not a concern for the native New Zealanders, and vice-versa. What’s not a concern for the
Asians is a concern for the New Zealander and they can be quite different,” he explained.
“The formator works what is called the external forum, which means I work with what
I can see,” he added. “I work with the practical realities. So if I notice an ESOL student is stepping over the cultural boundaries, then I need to remind him if he’s not picking up on them. I ask them, how can you do that differently?”
He dreads the time when he has to say a student is unsuitable for priesthood. He said, though, there are five voices in the discernment: God’s, the person’s, the formator’s, the spiritual director’s, and the community’s.
“The challenge is to respect the other person’s honesty, but also to respect your intuition, your inner compass,” he said.