Last month, the New Zealand Catholic bishops announced the appointment of Auckland priest Fr Mathew Vadakkevettuvazhiyil as rector of Holy Cross Seminary, starting at the end of 2021. NZ Catholic put some questions to Fr Vadakkevettuvazhiyil about his appointment and his new role.
NZC: How did you receive the news about your appointment as rector of Holy Cross Seminary? What was your immediate reaction?
Bishop Patrick Dunn had asked me some time back last year whether I would consider him sending my name, among others, to the Holy See and I thought about it. The Salesian provincial had asked me if I could go to Fiji as rector of the house of novitiate, and the studentate of philosophy and theology, which I declined. So, I thought maybe God is asking me something. I said to Bishop Patrick, if you wish, please forward my name. But I told Bishop Patrick that Rome most likely would not consider my name, because I am new to New Zealand, in a sense, and in terms of ministry, and knowing people and so on. But when he called me on January 6 with the appointment and asked me to meet him, then it dawned on me that here is something different, there is much I need to learn – but I entrust myself to God.
NZC: In your future role, you are going to be working with young men discerning God’s call. How did you experience God’s call to become a priest and how did you respond to it?
As a small child, coming from the Syro-Malabar oriental rite, the Mass was something very beautiful. The art, the lighting, the celebration of Mass, invoked in me a sense of holiness. I found the priests very happy, very cheerful, and I wanted to be holy and go to heaven. I thought if I become a priest, the possibility of my committing sin is less. That is how it started. As I grew up, coming from a farming area, life was very routine. I asked myself – what is life? There must be something more to it than having regular work and regular income? These questions would not go away. In my high school years, vocation promoters from different orders visited us, and I ended being up with the Salesians of Don Bosco.
NZC: If a young man in a parish today approached you and said I think God is calling me to be a priest, what would you say to him? What questions might you ask?
I would congratulate him for having the courage to say he feels he is being called to be a priest. I would enquire about his relationship with the parish, whether he has spoken with the parish priest, how has he been connected with the parish, not just the priest, but with the community, because in the process of vocation promotion and encouragement, I think the community has much more to do than leaving it only to the parish priest or someone. Also, it is important to talk about the family, the prayer life in the family, the faith, the relationship with members of the family, even more than the parish – I think these are important in the initial stages of discernment. And it is for the vocations promoter to follow him up.
NZC: Working as a pastor in Africa, as you have done, would have been very different from working as a pastor in New Zealand. What are some of the differences in priestly parish ministry in the two places?
I went to Africa as a missionary in 1983, I was still a student. The culture was so different, in fact I had a cultural shock at that time. Studying there, learning the culture, learning the language, I could see the greatness of the Church, the Church as missionary, going out and celebrating faith. By and large, Africans are really spiritual, and they express their spirituality, the divine in their lives, through music, art and liturgy. Sunday is the day of the Lord, they are happy to celebrate, even in long liturgical services. This is an expression of faith. You can see the joy of it. Coming to New Zealand, in the beginning I asked people why fewer people come to celebrate and I was told, Oh, Father, in New Zealand, we are not poor. Africa is poor and because you are poor, you go to Church to pray. Well, that may be or not, but I wonder if many people in New Zealand really know the beauty of who we are, the beauty of giving glory to God, the fact that we are more than what we do in everyday life. A sense of the deep beauty of who we are comes from our faith, from believing in the resurrection of the dead, and in the life eternal.
NZC: In documents such as Pastores Dabo Vobis, four types of formation are stressed for seminary formation – spiritual, pastoral, academic and pastoral. Can you comment on the importance of each one of these for diocesan priesthood today in New Zealand?
When I went to the seminary, I was 17 years of age. I left my state of Kerala in India, and went to Tamil Nadu. I had my own idea of being a seminarian. I thought that I had to be in the church and pray always. I became sick. I wrote to my father, and my father would write beautiful letters, and in one of his letters, told me, my son, you need to learn to integrate everything in your life. It is not enough to pray, you also need to play, you need to study, you need to socialise. In reality, my father was telling me about formation! That is a harmonious process of growth; it involves human, spiritual, intellectual and pastoral formation.
Regarding human formation, we are first and foremost children of God, and as children of God, we need to relate with each other. What does it mean to be a human? To share and to socialise, to show that we are really sons and daughters of the same God. There are many relationships in life. How do I relate to people? In my own family, to start with? How do I relate to the people of the opposite sex? How do I relate to people who are rich and poor, of different status? There are many aspects to the human formation.
Coming to spiritual formation, this is to establish friendship with God, a relationship with God, communion with God. We are entering into a relationship, not with a notion, but with a person – Jesus Christ. It is also important to understand and appreciate the daily Mass, meditation, practices of piety, the saints, Our Lady, the fathers of the Church. And to discover and encounter Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation. I really need to feel that I am being led by God, not by myself. That communion with God enables me to have a profound sense of dependence on God, who calls me in my humanity, my weakness.
Intellectual formation is very important. To communicate with people today the message of the Gospel as a missionary, in the language of the men and the women of the age, it is very important that we study, that we have intellectual formation. What do we study? The Scriptures, that is very important. The liturgy. The sacred history of the Church. The laws of the Church. Also wider social sciences – education from the wider world.
In pastoral formation, the Holy Spirit is the formator. It is important to conform ourselves to the heart of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who goes out, not waiting for the sheep to come to him. This involves a sense of pastoral charity, feeling the need to be at the service of people, at the service of the Gospel, to relate with the people, give comfort to the people. It is all guided by the pastoral zeal and pastoral charity.
Particularly through these four areas of formation, I believe, a person is helped, with the grace of God, in the discernment to be a priest.
NZC: You have spent most of your priestly life as a Salesian of Don Bosco. What strengths or gifts from this ministry do you think you will bring to your role as rector?
For a Salesian, young people are at the heart of their vocation. So, for the Salesian, it is a journey of accompanying the young people, and I think the role of rector is to journey with and accompany the seminarians in their formation. This accompaniment is not passive. It is very active, because you love the person. Love would mean sacrifice, and this sacrifice would envisage presence and that is there, an active presence. Of course, the goal is the salvation of souls.
NZC: You will have the best part of a year working in a parish in Papatoetoe before assuming the role of rector. How will you prepare yourself for the new role?
I will pray for the seminarians, I will pray for myself, I will pray for the staff. I think, through prayer, I will be close to the seminary community. Of course, I will need to read the documents on the seminary formation, the ratio. I may visit seminaries to have experience of how formation is imparted, especially in those four areas we have discussed. I will listen to Bishop Patrick and the other bishops for what they have in mind, because it is something new for me, and given that I’m coming from another background.