Fr Chani Thomas Park first heard the call to priesthood at age 19 in a dream. Three dreams to be exact.
On May 15, he was finally ordained to the priesthood by Auckland Auxiliary Bishop Michael Gielen at the Cathedral of St Patrick and St Joseph. Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn was the presiding bishop, with Hamilton Bishop Emeritus Denis Browne one of the principal concelebrants. Other priests also concelebrated.
In the homily, Bishop Gielen told then-Deacon Park to take inspiration from St Joseph, who received messages from God through dreams. “At 19 . . . you had a dream. You saw yourself dressed as a priest, greeting people. You were shocked, unsure what it all meant. And in your direct and honest manner, you told Jesus he’d chosen the wrong person,” Bishop Gielen said.
“You went on to have two further dreams. That was the beginning of your discernment, a conversation with our Lord that lasted 10 years,” the bishop added. “He (God) wants you to go deeper.”
Members of the Korean community were at the cathedral in numbers. After the ordination, a huge banner with a large photo of Fr Park was unfurled.
Under the banner, the Korean young adult group was serenading him with a Korean song that talked about how he was loved by the people as a priest.
“It was very emotional for me,” Fr Park said. Fr Park said he thinks he is the first priest to come from the community. Fr Marcellino Park (no relation), who was ordained a few years ago, was an international student, he said.
After the serenade, Fr Park was encircled by a group of men, pushed into their arms and thrown up in the air three times.
“[It was] very Korean stuff. If they are very happy, they express it that way,” he said.
Fr Park came to New Zealand with his parents and brother in 2003 and studied at Rangitoto College. However, life was far from settled as, three years later, their application for residency was rejected three times.
“At that time, my faith journey turned 180 degrees. By this stage, I cried a lot. [I went from] just blaming God to totally turning back to God,” he said.
He said his faith grew from merely believing in God because his parents believed in God, to falling in love with Jesus and Mother Mary.
“I went to daily Mass with my mother at (St Joseph’s) Takapuna,” he said.
“I did a lot of rosaries. Around 200, 300 decades of the rosary a day. Crazy. I was really crazy at that time. Once I wake up, I said the rosary. I never stopped,” he recalled.
It was during this time that he had his first dream, but he dismissed it. He just wasn’t interested, he said.
Even though some friends were saying they had little chance of gaining permanent residency, the family kept praying. Their prayers were answered when the Immigration Minister looked at their case and approved their application.
Fr Park went on to the University of Auckland, where he studied geography and geology for a Bachelor of Science degree.
His spiritual life took a back seat to parties and alcohol, but he still went to church.
He had a girlfriend for three and a half years. It was during this time when he had his second dream. “I had the second dream. My girlfriend and I went to a church and then a guy suddenly appeared and asked me to wear the clothes (of the priest),” he recounted.
He told his girlfriend about the dream, and asked how she would feel if he became a priest. “She said, ‘oh, ok, I’ll let you go. But I will be a nun, anyway.’ I was quite surprised. I expected another answer like, ‘Don’t go’. It was surprising. She said, ‘I’ll let you go.’ Maybe she knew something,” he said.
Fr Park said breaking up with his girlfriend was really hard. After graduating from university, she went back to South Korea.
“[It was a] very hard time. I had one and a half years of that kind of life,” he said. By this time, he was also working in the rental property field.
He dreamed he was in the business class of an aeroplane, when it broke in half and started to drop to the ground. In his dream, his life flashed before his eyes. When the plane crashed, everything turned white and he was floating. Suddenly, he was in front of a big church. Two men appeared and dragged him along the centre aisle to a man sitting on a golden chair where the altar was supposed to be. He said his head dropped down, he couldn’t look at the man. When he got in front of the man, he knew the man was very angry at him, but he (Fr Park) couldn’t hear what was being said. Fr Park woke up in tears saying, “I’m very sorry” over and over.
“After the dream, I turned to Jesus saying, I need my own time, I know that you are calling me, but I need my own time to reflect on it,” he said.
Finally, a waking vision at an Easter Vigil Mass in 2013 convinced him to say yes to the call. He was serving at the Mass celebrated by Msgr David Tonks.
“During the Mass when he [Msgr Tonks] said, ’do this in memory of me’ and then elevated the Eucharist and then, I looked at him and looked at the Body of Christ. All of a sudden . . . [I saw] I was holding the bread, Jesus’ Body. I thought, ‘something’s not right. Maybe, I’m tired’. I rubbed my eyes and saw it again. Same. It was me,” he said.
Fr Park admitted he struggled in the seminary. He was too forthright, he said, and didn’t realise he had quite a temper.
He said he had a very black-and white view. And if he thought something was wrong, he would tell the person.
“The seminarians who knew me, they tell new seminarians, ‘Look at Thomas over there. Just don’t follow him. Don’t follow him. He’s a special case’,” he said, laughing.
He said the seminary staff were happily surprised that he made it through.
“They said to me, ‘Thomas, you actually proved to us that people can change’,” he said.
“I learned from the seminary that the world is not only black-and-white. I guess I’m more flexible than before. Still learning from mistakes,” he said.
Fr Park said he hasn’t really thought about what kind of priest he would become.
“I want to be a priest who is walking with others. Like a family. If somebody is sick, I’ll be there. If somebody is sad, I’ll be there. Just walking with the people, the family,” he said.