When the priest who is to be a new auxiliary Bishop for Auckland was in Rome last year, he received an unexpected message.
It was from was the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa, saying he (the nuncio) wanted to talk with him.
Bishop-elect Michael Gielen, 48, who was in Rome at the end of a sabbatical spent in the Holy Land and at Oxford in England, thought it would be a consultation about “the appropriateness of others needed in the Church”.
But the nuncio had news for him. “He said ‘the Holy Father has something new for you. I started getting very nervous then,” Bishop-elect Gielen said.
After hearing what the nuncio had to say, Bishop-elect Gielen said: “I thought I needed to pray about it and discern it.”
The previous day, he had stood in front of St Peter’s Basilica and had said to the Lord: “I love your Church”.
“It was just a very providential, in a sense, prayer for what I was asked to do, to pick up this role.”
The day after he spoke with the nuncio, Bishop-elect Gielen celebrated Mass at a side-altar in St Peter’s Basilica, which, he said, was a very special occasion.
Bishop-elect Gielen’s appointment was announced at midnight New Zealand time on January 7. He will be ordained as bishop on March 7 at the Vodafone Events Centre (770 Great South Road, Wiri, Manukau) at 11am.
Ordained as a priest for Hamilton diocese in 1997, he served in parishes in Gisborne, Hamilton and the western Bay of Plenty, before becoming director of formation at Holy Cross Seminary, Auckland, in 2014. In his new role, he will assist Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn.
In addition to his B.Theol. from the University of Otago, he gained his Masters in Theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, USA, and a Licentiate in Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome.
Since his appointment was announced, Bishop-elect Gielen’s phone has run hot with congratulations. While he has been able to answer all text messages, he has not been able to respond yet to all messages in other formats, for instance, emails. “So, an apology would be appropriate at this stage. People have been very supportive,” he said.
The bishop-elect’s own family have been “incredibly supportive . . . and a wonderful example. I see myself [and] my ministry as a fruit of their example and their encouragement and their witness”.
Bishop-elect Gielen is the oldest of the six children of Henk and Maureen Gielen of Mount Maunganui, where his father is a permanent deacon at All Saints by the Sea parish, Papamoa Coast.
Asked by NZ Catholic if he knows of any other bishop in the world who has a permanent deacon as a father, Bishop-elect Gielen said he had met priests in the US who have biological fathers who are permanent deacons, but never a bishop who has.
“My father is a humble man . . . his advice has been for me to keep being myself and to keep serving as I have served, not to try and be something that I am not or to live something that you are not,” the bishop-elect said.
“There is a challenge there, because I know that not only am I called for what I might offer, I am also a man with my own weaknesses and my own struggles,” he said.
But he said he accepted this “new call in God’s service, aware of my need for God’s help”.
In many of the messages Bishop-elect Gielen has received, people have expressed support and encouragement for both himself and Bishop Dunn.
“I see my first responsibility, my first priority is supporting Bishop Pat,” Bishop-elect Gielen said.
“I have great respect for him and I have told him that already. The first phone call I had with him, I said that to him. I said I want you to know that I feel honoured to walk with you in your ministry.”
Bishop Dunn said in a statement that he is thrilled by Bishop-elect Gielen’s appointment and knows that the new bishop-elect – who is already well known in the diocese – will be warmly welcomed by priests and people alike.
Bishop-elect Gielen does not yet know exactly where he will live in his new ministry, but for the time being he is staying at the seminary, where he will continue his work until arrangements are made to replace him there.
Over the years, while living in Ponsonby, he has been able to cycle around many of the suburbs of Auckland, getting an appreciation for the place, physically. He has previously cycled around the Coromandel Peninsula and once led a national seminarian cycle tour, starting at Cape Reinga, to promote vocations.
A keen sportsman, he enjoys rugby, cricket and golf, as well as cycling. Asked by NZ Catholic if, as a man with Waikato-red, gold and black blood coursing through his veins, his blood might assume a blue and white hue from now on, he laughed and said: “I always support the underdog!”.
He also pointed out that Cambridge, where he was born in 1971, was, at that time, in the old Auckland diocese (before Hamilton diocese came into being).
Speaking of places, as an auxiliary bishop, he has a titular see in the north African nation of Tunisia, a country that he has visited previously.
Bishop-elect Gielen knows he will be moving into a different type of ministry from what he has experienced so far.
“I said to a lot of people when I left parish ministry and went to the seminary, it was like going from a sheep station, the wide open plains, working amongst all the different challenges that a broad pastoral ministry requires, to going into sort of the ‘institute’. That’s what I found hardest about seminary ministry. I suppose what I am looking forward to in the episcopal ministry is hopefully going back out to the sheep station again, to the much wider diocese, and working amongst many different people and walking with them. That is what I see my role as – to walk with people, encourage them and to express my ministry alongside people, in support of Bishop Pat. The hardest part, of course, will be not having that personal relationship with people in parishes.”
Asked what he had prayed about since his appointment, Bishop-elect Gielen said: “I have a great devotion to Our Lady, so I have just given everything to her. I am remembering the Auckland diocese and Bishop Pat in my rosary every day.”
“If anything, I am feeling called to pray for joy, a sense of hope and joy in my ministry, because I know that it is going to be difficult, and I know there are going to be many challenges; I know the Church is facing great challenges at present, from many different avenues and what we don’t need is to become mired in, in a sense, the difficulties and the challenges that lie ahead. We are the people of the Resurrection, . . . we are people of hope, and I want that to be a shining light and I realise that, at times, that will be difficult, but that is my prayer, that I can be that for people and with Bishop Pat.
“I am totally committed to Auckland. Those who know me know that, when I make a commitment, I make it fully, all in, as they say these days.”