During his time in ministry as a priest, and lately as a bishop, Bishop Michael Gielen has sensed God moving in many unexpected ways, which were occasions of real joy.
Bishop Gielen said the greatest “unexpected grace” for him has been the extent to which people have allowed him to be a part of their journey. This has been at big events like sacraments and anniversaries and also at random moments, during which people could open up and talk about their lives to a priest in a very personal way.
“I met someone once in a supermarket,” Bishop Gielen said, “and they said — I have something I need to talk about, can I come and see you?”
“They came and saw me that afternoon and got some stuff off their chest — it was incredible. They didn’t know me particularly, they just saw I was a priest.”
Something similar happened in hospital ministry. “Someone sees you and sees that you are a priest and says — can I talk to you. . . they never expected to talk [about that subject] and you never expected to talk about that and it was an unexpected grace.”
Another real joy in Bishop Gielen’s priestly ministry has been fraternity with his brother priests.
“It is just sharing our ups and our downs and our joys and our sorrows, that is something I have invested in more as I have got older, and I have really appreciated that.”
Underlying the particular moments of joy in his ministry is a deep joy that comes from “closeness to the Shepherd”.
“I remember a Cistercian monk once on one of my retreats really challenging me to deepen my relationship with Our Lord, to deepen my closeness to him, so that he becomes the first one in my life and takes that first place.
“And, for all of us, that is an ongoing challenge, it doesn’t come naturally in a sense, that is something you have to invest in, definitely. The times in the priesthood that have been the most rewarding, and where I have known the most peace, are when I have been closest to Our Lord”.
Alongside the joys in the life of a priest, there are also the sorrows and the challenges.
Bishop Gielen, a former director of formation at Holy Cross Seminary, said the best way he and his brother priests have for rising to challenges that occur in ministry is “doing the basics”.
He uses an image of a rugby team to illustrate this.
“When you see guys losing the fundamentals and they start to become too flashy or too caught up in the technical stuff, you will notice that they are moving away from what is going to support them in the end.
“That’s what I’ve noticed with priesthood. You have got to keep prayer, the relationship with Our Lord, the Mass and your relationship with your people. In the end, they are our family, you know. We are celibate, we have made this choice, and our family are the people of God. And you have to invest in it. If you find that you are [not] — and it is a temptation for all of us — you start being isolated, you start to become caught up in the administration, left with your computer, and your door is locked, and you are not connecting with the people any more, then you are losing your heart.
“In the end, shepherds without sheep are unhappy people, I would say.”
Intentional ongoing formation is important, Bishop Gielen added. Formation does not end when the priest finishes his seminary days.
Bishop Gielen says that keeping up one’s reading, especially spiritual reading, is very helpful in this.
“What you read, what you are taking in, obviously— Jesus says the eyes are the windows of the soul — it is what you are taking in that feeds you. Many small conversions I have had in my life have been through reading.”
He mentioned his reading of NZ Catholic over the years, and especially the columns by Fr Ron Rolheiser, as being part of this.
He also stressed the importance of having a good relationship with a spiritual director.
“I am very committed to my spiritual direction and to supervision, so making sure I have got my professional, my service life and my spiritual life in balance.
“And if you keep those in order — good reading, spiritual direction, supervision, good friends, and everything else looks after itself. The mind, the body, the soul, looking after those areas — and that is true for all of us.”
In his ministry, Bishop Gielen has a real sense of the intimacy of God’s love for his people.
Referencing one of the themes of the prophet Hosea, Bishop Gielen said that God’s love is like that of a husband who is wooing his wife, being the body of Christ.
That is something he often senses in prayer — the intimacy that the Lord, the Good Shepherd, has for us.