One week after being installed as the Bishop of Christchurch, Bishop Michael Gielen ordained Fr Monty Bamford to the priesthood in a packed St Mary’s Pro-Cathedral.
At the Mass on July 16, before the Rite of Ordination, Bishop Gielen spoke in his homily about Jesus the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for his sheep.
“Deacon Monty, you were born into a family of shepherds. Growing up on a sheep station in North Canterbury, your entire life has been filled up with images of shepherds and sheep.”
Bishop Gielen recalled visiting the family’s farm in Hawarden.
“You proudly showed us around. As a son of a farmer from the Waikato, things looked a little different to me. Shall we say, more challenging. And that was at the bottom of the farm, where things are flat. Then you took us to the top of the farm. It was cold, the wind was blowing, we were scratched by the scrub that was around. And you were proud to show these soft North Islanders what true farming is all about,” Bishop Gielen said.
“With this formation, it is no surprise that so many priests and religious have come from North Canterbury. And to those in North Canterbury, we thank you for your generosity over the years.
“You are a son of North Canterbury. You understand the sacrifice and dedication required to be a shepherd.”
A few weeks before he was ordained, Fr Bamford told NZ Catholic that he recalled “clearly, almost down to the day” when he was called to priesthood.
“It was Easter Sunday 2012. I was in my last year in university. I was wondering what the faith is all about . . . trying to hold on to my faith and everything. After Mass, I was talking to the parish priest at the time (Fr John O’Connor) and he just came up to me and said, ‘Monty, have you ever thought about becoming a priest?’” he said.
“I remember sitting in the car on the way home thinking to myself, ‘gosh, I wonder, is he serious? Did he mean that?’”
It was a little seed that was planted in his soul that came to fruition at his ordination.
In some ways, his was a surprising vocation, considering that he grew up going to Catholic Mass one Sunday and to an evangelical service the next.
“Both Mum and Dad were Catholic, and they were both from big Catholic families,” Fr Bamford said.
But “for a whole lot of reasons”, he said his mother, who moved to their North Canterbury farm when she married his (Fr Bamford’s) dad, started going to the New Life Church.
“[The churches had] very different styles, different ecclesiologies, different worship styles as well. Looking back, I still have very fond memories of my time at New Life Church, the goodness of the people there, their zeal, and also their love for the Bible,” he said.
He said though, that, even as a very young child, he had a fascination for the Mass, its rituals and structure.
He was often told of how, as a three-year-old, he ran to the front and sat on the priest’s chair at Mass.
“I can’t remember the exact details, but I can imagine what it’s like. Little three-year-old Monty sitting out there with his legs swinging in the chair while the priest was preaching the homily. It was the country. People didn’t worry too much or mind too much. It was funny,” he said.
“I’m sure it was the Lord saying something, in a way.”
As he became a young adult, Fr Bamford said that there were lots of “little moments” that he can now see led him to this calling.
“I started to spend quite a bit of time in adoration of the [Blessed] Sacrament. I developed lots of good friendships with young adults in my diocese, Christchurch diocese, who had a similar sense of desire for God, and getting to know and love Jesus more and more. I also began reading a lot more material, a lot more widely from the Catholic tradition,” he said.
The year before he went to the seminary, 2015, was very tumultuous, Fr Bamford said.
“There were a lot of emotional, personal and spiritual challenges,” he said.
An encounter with two priests at the young adults’ summer school seemed to have clarified his vocation.
“In that year, later on, my father was diagnosed with cancer. He subsequently passed away two months after he was diagnosed,” Fr Bamford said.
“We were in the middle of one of our worst droughts as well. So my mother was sort of managing, looking after the farm and caring for him. I was coming up two days a week from town just to help as well,” he said.
On top of that, Fr Bamford was in a developing relationship with a young woman.
“I had to make the call. Do I break this off and go to the seminary, or do I put off the seminary another year, and carry this relationship on and potentially making it even more difficult to break up? I wasn’t too sure where I was at with that one. It was a really messy, really difficult time in my life,” he said.
Luckily, he had the support and good counsel of people like Fr O’Connor, who was by that time the vocations director.
He remembered telling the late Bishop Barry Jones that he (Fr Bamford) was considering priesthood. “He had the biggest, happiest smile come across his face,” Fr Bamford said.
Fr Bamford said that Pope Benedict XVI was his biggest inspiration. Pope Benedict’s writings, particularly his Introduction to Christianity book and his encyclical Spe Salvi (On Hope), “had a profound impact on my life”.
“Even watching interviews on him, reading materials on him, his demeanour, his theological style, really speaks to me.”
He said that the priests in Christchurch also helped strengthened his vocation.
“One of the great blessings of our diocese is that we do have a strong, robust sense of the priesthood, of living it out. I’ve seen that time and time again with the priests I’ve been with, and been assigned with, and just who I met at social occasions as well,” he said.
He also expressed his gratitude to his family, particularly his Mum, for the prayers, support and “gradual acceptance” of his vocation.
“There’s a respect on their part for what I’m doing. Possibly, there are some reservations as well, mainly around the nature of the commitment we’re making, especially around celibacy,” he noted.
“The best way to help them to understand more is to live my priesthood as authentically and as joyfully as possible. Because ultimately, if they see that it is the Lord that is calling me, it is the Lord that is working through me, it helps them to trust and to understand more.”
He said that he is most excited about bringing Christ to the people of God through the sacraments “so they can be nourished every weekend, preparing and preaching a homily for them, helping them to get caught up in the drama of the liturgy, getting that, hopefully, taste of heaven which is what we understand liturgy to be”.
At the ordination Mass, Bishop Gielen said in the homily that, on the previous day, he had “had the great joy of joining with Fr Mike Doyle and celebrating his 65th anniversary of ordination to priesthood. I was humbled in his presence. He said a few words at the end, and he finished by saying – ‘what has sustained me and nourished me throughout my priesthood is daily Mass, and I thank God for that privilege’”.
“Jesus is a type of North Canterbury shepherd,” Bishop Gielen said.
“He is not an easy friend,” the Bishop told then-Deacon Bamford. “[Jesus’] disciples, martyrs and saints throughout the ages have given testament to this. He will ask everything of you. He will not give you a map, or a guarantee of a comfortable life . . . especially living with us in the cathedral presbytery (to which there was much laughter).
“But what he will promise is to be with you wherever you go, in whatever is asked of you. You don’t do this alone. . . . The task may seem overwhelming, but always remember, this is his mission. We are only his messengers.”
Photo: Fr Monty Bamford at his ordination Mass (Photo: Peter Fleming – Catholic Diocese of Christchurch)