Having spent more than 30 years as a priest outside of New Zealand, Fr James Walsh’s continued vocational journey has led him back home.
With a little touch of irony, Fr Walsh first felt called to come home while serving as the chaplain of the Italian rugby team at the World Rugby Cup in 2011.
“That was . . . God’s doing. It had nothing to do with rugby. It was getting me back to New Zealand. That was the first moment when I felt God was doing something in New Zealand with me,” he said.
Fr Walsh vocation journey has been a series of discernments. He first felt the call to priesthood as an 11-year-old altar boy in Upper Hutt.
“It didn’t attract me at all. I wanted to get married and have 8 children. The first goal was married life. So, I put it out of my head, the idea of priesthood,” he said.
As a university student in Dunedin, he met “non-Catholic Christians”, who seemed “full of light and full of the Holy Spirit”.
“Meeting these non-Catholic Christians inspired me to have a deeper relationship with Jesus, and [to] get to know the Holy Spirit better. So, it began my search for a deeper faith,” he said. “One night, I read the Gospel of St John from the beginning to the end in one night, and I can say I fell in love with Jesus at that moment, and had a strong sense that I could give my life to him.”
He entered Holy Cross College in Mosgiel, but only stayed a year, as he “wasn’t quite ready at the time”.
He said the idea of marriage was still strong. He had a relationship with a woman who didn’t have a strong faith, and he broke up with her because “I couldn’t imagine having a relationship with somebody without sharing the deepest part of me”.
A second relationship was with a woman who shared his deep faith.
“Here, I had the situation of a woman [with whom] I would be very happy to share a very beautiful faith, but I felt in my heart that I had another calling, and it was just strong. It really cost me to say I have got another calling,” he said. “The truth of it was, although the idea of marriage was strong, the call to priesthood was much stronger.”
At the same time, travelling was an itch that needed attending to. During this time, he travelled to Europe, met other young people and learned about Medjugorje. He travelled around England and Ireland with a friend, living the principal messages of Medjugorje.
“We’d go to Mass every day. We prayed the rosary. We’d fast two days a week. It was just an incredible moment of peace and joy and awareness of God’s presence. I can’t say that, at that moment, Medjugorje has changed my life, but I was open to it,” he said.
He went back to New Zealand, however, when his mother became sick. In 1990, while preparing for Lent, he read an article written by a Protestant minister about Medjugorje, which proved to be a turning point in his life, spurring him to go on a pilgrimage.
He also read about the Marian Community Oasis of Peace, a contemplative community of men and women inspired by Medjugorje.
After his pilgrimage to Medjugorje, he went to the Oasis of Peace in Italy, where he became a priest and stayed there for 25 years. However, God’s call didn’t end there.
“What my calling was, was to be more open to evangelising. I have a call to live and teach spirituality, which is for me the centre of all vocations,” he said.
He was incardinated in the diocese of Chiavari in 2016.
“In 2019, I was in discernment of this call to go back to New Zealand. It had [always] been there, and I felt it again really strongly. My journey was taking full circle. I was being called back to the land of my birth,” he said.
After seeking the permission of his bishop in Chiavari, as well as the blessings of his spiritual father [a Capuchin friar] to go back to Auckland and to care for his ailing mother, Fr Walsh asked to be received by Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn.
Becoming a priest in the Auckland diocese “is a possibility at the moment which is fine for me”, Fr Walsh said. “If it’s God’s calling, it will
get strong. But the early signs are good.”