by ROWENA OREJANA
“Men of potential” is how Holy Cross Seminary Director of Formation Fr Michael Gielen calls the four first-year seminarians.
For these young men, the realisation that they were being called to priesthood was more of a journey rather than a “Eureka!” moment.
However, they each saw the need for more priests in their own country and hope they can serve as shepherds of Christ’s flock.
Monty Bamford, 25, is studying to be a priest for Christchurch diocese. A commerce degree holder, he worked in the rural supply industry.
Growing up in North Canterbury as parishioner of the Catholic parish of the Good Shepherd, he identified much with the shepherding imagery in the Bible.
He said the pull of the priesthood was there, even as a toddler.
“I escaped from the clutches of mum and dad, ran up to the sanctuary of the church and actually sat down on the presider’s chair and had a big grin on my face,” he said, smiling.
After Easter Sunday Mass in 2012, vocations director Fr John O’Connor asked Mr Bamford to consider becoming a priest, but he put the thought at the back of his mind.
In 2014, he heard a young woman talk openly and honestly about religious life, and the call became more insistent.
“I just took it step by step. In personal prayer time, especially at Mass in front of the Blessed Sacrament, I
noticed a special sense of peace and it was something I wanted to pursue,” he said.
Mr Bamford said there are a lot of distractions, such as money and material possessions.
“It’s not so much leaving all that behind, but focusing and orientating myself towards Christ and being a bridge to others for that in today’s society. Being a young man in 21st century New Zealand going on this path, it’s counter-cultural, I suppose,” he reflected.
He noted there is a lot of physical rebuilding in Christchurch. “I think the rebuild of the people and the diocese from a spiritual level is very important as well,” he said.
Mark Oliver Paguntalan, 24, is from the archdiocese of Wellington. His family moved to New Zealand
from the Philippines nine years ago.
Mr Paguntalan said he took up psychology and religious studies at Victoria University. Although the attraction to priesthood was there, the idea was just “on the edges of the radar”, he said.
His parents were involved in the Focolare movement in New Zealand. Having been somewhat exposed to the community, he went to Argentina in 2014 to learn more about it.
“I spent almost six months in Mariapolis Lia (Argentina). At that place, I was learning about the Focolare spirituality, about the universal brotherhood, dialogue and trying to see Jesus in the other. And it was around
late June , when it just felt clear that I really want to do this,” he said.
He said he was trying to decide between becoming a priest or a short story fiction writer.
“In Argentina, it just harmonised. I decided I could use this passion [writing short stories] for something
greater,” he said.
Mr Paguntalan said he was inspired by Fr Kevin Connors, Victoria University tertiary chaplain. “He is a very special priest. He connects easily with people,” he said.
He also discovered the videos of Bishop Robert Barron while at university. “The clarity and simplicity of his talks really touched me, and also there is a sense of joy,” he said.
Although brought up in a religious household, he said he didn’t feel pressured by his parents to become a priest.
“They didn’t really say that I should be a priest. It was a journey of self-discovery,” he said.
Adam Kirkeby, 31, is studying to become a priest for Hamilton diocese. He taught primary and intermediate students at St Patrick’s School in Taupo for six years.
“There was no one particular time when I said, ‘Yes, I want to try for the seminary’. It was something gradual and it began, I think, right back from when I was a boy,” he said.
He used to play priest as a boy. “There was an immature understanding of what priesthood was when I was younger, but definitely an attraction towards that,” he added.
When he was three or four, he would be working on religious colouring books with his mum, and had a fascination with the lives of the saints. “[My mum] definitely was a powerful influence in my faith journey,” he said.
Mr Kirkeby said the thought of becoming a priest would roll around in his mind.
“Sometimes, I would think no, that’s something that I would definitely not want to do. But it always came back,” he said.
He went to two retreats: one in Ngakuru and another in Tauranga. Those retreats, he said, gave him great opportunities to quietly reflect on what God wanted him to do.
“The big reason why I want to become a priest is I love God very much and I want to serve him and that great love I want to share with other people, specifically to the people of New Zealand,” he said.
Mr Kirkeby said he explored other paths to priesthood that would take him overseas.
“But there’s a shortage of priests in New Zealand and there are challenges we are facing around that,” he said.
Alfred Tong, 30, is also from the archdiocese of Wellington. He worked as an environmental chemist and did a lot of science research, but it was his work in music ministry in Dunedin and involvement in Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand in Wellington that made him consider a vocation to the priesthood.
“I actually heard the call from the love that I received from the people that I met doing music ministry down in Dunedin,” he said.
Mr Tong was born in Hong Kong and his family moved to New Zealand when he was six years old.
“I settled into an ordinary Kiwi life. I went to Mass on Sundays, didn’t really think a lot about my faith in a sense other than being the churchgoing Catholic, you know, receiving sacraments,” he said.
He went to Dunedin and stayed there for nine years, and also served as a church musician there.
His time in Dunedin was characterised by “a feeling of love, and it was not only a giving love but a receiving
love at the same time”.
“There was that seed planted by one of the lay ministers with whom I actually did music ministry with. And I thought it was a ridiculous comment at that time,”he said with a laugh.
When he moved back to Wellington, he had a different realisation.
“It felt right and it felt I was at home and it was something meaningful,” he said. “There was calling, a sense of a calling to actually be at home and to serve the people at home.
“One thing I hold on to is I hope to love people as I receive love throughout this journey,” he added.
by ROWENA OREJANA