I grew up in a Catholic family in Nelson, and went to the local Parish primary school. Dad was very committed to his faith; he took us to Church on Sundays and instilled in us the values of community and service. Being Catholic was a normal part of life. I remember one day being at a School Mass. It was my turn to read, and afterwards someone came up to me and said, “Gosh you read very well Seph, I think you’ll make a great priest”. That thought stayed there, it was a very clear moment for me.
After some years at Nelson Boys, my family moved to Christchurch and I boarded at St Bede’s College. The Marist priests were teaching there and modelled a life of faith. Mass was part of the daily routine, and that really helped me at a time when I was feeling quite lost. After leaving school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life, and that thought of priesthood was still at the back of my mind. However, it just didn’t fit in with my mindset at the time. I was enjoying playing rugby and I decided to just keep doing that, earn some money and maybe do some travel. I started working at the Social Welfare department. This really helped me to understand a different side of life as I saw people who were in seriously difficult situations.
I was doing quite well with my rugby. The 1987 World Cup was happening in New Zealand and there was a lot of international interest. A group of Italian rugby recruiters somehow heard about me and, without me knowing, had watched me play a couple of games. I was very surprised when they approached me and asked if I would like to play rugby for their team in Italy. My heart said YES straight away! A few weeks later off I went to the south of Italy for two years. It was a great experience. I learnt that the world is a different place as I was immersed in a different culture. I got to play with some of my rugby heroes at the time too – the All Blacks were in Italy and France playing rugby. In many ways it was every boy’s dream!
Yet somehow, I still wasn’t settled. My club in Italy wanted me to stay on, but it didn’t feel right, and I decided to return to New Zealand. I went back to my work in the Social Welfare Department and picked up my rugby again. Life was full, but I was still not happy with my direction in life. I started thinking more seriously about the idea of being a priest and spoke to a priest about it. Even then, I still found it hard to decide. It seemed like such a radical thing to be doing.
I decided I needed a change, so I gave up my job, threw my things in the car and moved up to Motueka. I started playing for Nelson Bays and doing some community work in the area. I got into a relationship too. By now I was 28 and thought it was probably time to sort my life out!
But when I thought about it and prayed to God about where my life was heading, I realised I needed to talk to someone about priesthood again. It was a question on my mind that needed to be answered. I realised that there was no point in having that inner thought and going through my life always wondering about it.
My Parish Priest sent me to see Bishop John Dew in Wellington. I was nervous, but he was very welcoming and put me at ease. I spent the weekend with him, talking about everything and exploring where God might be leading me. It was a very good and helpful experience to have someone accompany me and help me reflect on my life. I realised that I had to make a conscious decision regarding my vocation.
After that weekend I decided to give it a go. Going from rugby field to Seminary was a radical shift in lifestyle. I knew that choosing to follow God as a priest would come at a cost. I had to give up my relationship, my rugby, my normal life. I found it difficult to tell everyone about my decision, especially my partner and my rugby mates. I expected my mates to be angry or confused, but to my surprise they respected my decision and realised that it I had not taken it lightly.
I gave up the rugby altogether and at the age of 30, I entered the Seminary. That was quite an incredible journey which helped me to understand my journey. I came to know God more and to understand myself more deeply. It was not always easy; I had never done any academic study and I needed to get used to that routine of study and learning. But it was a wonderful gift that helped me to respond to God’s call.
Sometimes I am asked why I gave up rugby. Looking back, the rugby was just part of who I was growing up – a typical Kiwi kid. I had some amazing experiences with some of New Zealand’s top rugby players at the time. It was great and I did it for the passion of it, but in the end, I found something that I was more passionate about and I was happy to give all that up to follow Jesus.
Children at school often ask me how I knew that God was calling me to be a priest. I guess I paid attention to that little voice in myself, the thought that never went away. In a way, we never know for sure, but we know that God will show us on the way.
Fr Seph Pijfers is currently serving as Parish Priest of Our Lady of the Bays Parish, Richmond.