My vocation started in the home, in my childhood. I grew up in a very ordinary Catholic family – we went to Mass every Sunday and we prayed grace before meals. We were part of the local parish community, and I was fortunate to go to a Catholic school because it meant that I saw priests in the ordinary day-to-day life, not just on Sundays. I think that made an impression on me.
Towards the end of my college years, a priest asked me: “Have you ever thought about being a priest?” I said a quick “No”! But in fact, that was not true… I had thought about it, but I didn’t really want to admit it!
You see, I couldn’t imagine myself being a priest. It didn’t fit into the image I had of myself. I didn’t think I was worthy, holy enough or even capable – there’d be lots of study involved and I was not sure I could manage all that.
So when the priest said this to me I was surprised! I thought oh, he thinks that perhaps I might be worthy, I might be capable. I went away and thought about it. I was not sure if it was for me but eventually, I decided to give it a go.
During the Seminary years I found it was a fulfilling thing. I wanted to do something good with my life. I could see that a priest helped people at the very deepest part of their being. I could make a difference in a much deeper way than what I would be able to do through other jobs. I had thought of becoming a social worker, or a journalist. But then I thought that if I really wanted to do something good in the world, perhaps helping people with their spiritual wellbeing was a very important and good thing to do.
And that was the way God called me… God called me through the invitation of that priest, through the sense of fulfilment that I found in doing the studies for priesthood, through the pastoral practice work that we did, meeting and interacting with people… in all sorts of ways, God’s love called me and drew me.
I didn’t always realize what was happening. It was more that I slowly started to think I could do this, this seemed good. There were moments of doubt – when I thought it was too much, that I could not manage it. Could I really do it for my whole life? Could I live without a wife and family? All those kinds of questions came up. But with the support of many others, I finally became a priest 35 years ago.
It gives me joy to see the grace of God in the people that I’m sent to, especially those who are in any kind of need. When I was in seminary, I came to see that one of the important parts of being a priest for me is not only to help individuals but to help people as a group, to change society. Social Justice became important for me. I worked in Latin America for eight years and later spent some time in East Timor.
Back in Aotearoa I have worked in multi-cultural parishes and now with Maori. Sometimes, especially in Latin America, I found myself in difficult and even dangerous situations. My life was under threat. It was an intense time of fear, but also of a deep encounter of God’s love as the people around us cared for us deeply.
My experience of priesthood – whether preaching the Word, celebrating the Sacraments, being with people in different moments of life – has been an encounter with the Lord Jesus, and a very great privilege.
Pa Gerry is currently serving as Parish Priest of St Francis of Assisi Ohariu Parish and Administrator of Te Ngākau Tapu Parish.