The new Catholic Bishop of Christchurch admits he faces “quite a challenge for a young man”.
Bishop Michael Gielen, DD, realises he is “inheriting responsibilities” (to which) he must respond. At fifty-one years of age, he is not a man to panic. Instead, he has formulated a six-months plan – “to watch and listen and talk to a lot of people, at all levels”. He kicked off his plan just a few days after installation in his new role, with visits to West Coast parishes.
The challenge will not daunt him, as he knows Jesus will guide him. He is aware that the problems lying ahead are not peculiar to the Catholic Church. Most Christian churches, globally, face the crisis of falling membership numbers. Secular clubs, societies, sports bodies and others are struggling similarly because many people will not commit, he says.
The problem of declining numbers of active Catholics is compounded by another issue. “The Church is project-heavy,” the Bishop states. He explains that large numbers of attractive churches were built, everywhere in the world, from around the 1960s. Costs of maintenance and/or demolition and rebuilding are huge, while fewer people are able and willing to pay.
“These issues are societal, not ecclesiastical,” he says. “We have lost our bearings, with too much focus on Catholic culture” at the expense of Catholic “sense of mission – helping people develop their relationship with Jesus.”
Bishop Gielen likes a challenge. Ask any of New Zealand’s Hawke Cup Cricketers of his era how difficult it was to knock his wicket over. While a young a priest in Gisborne, he played at that high level and notched a top score of 78. As a fan of rugby’s Chiefs and Blues teams, he expected another challenge – some jeering from good old Crusaders supporters when he arrived in Canterbury. His scheme to defuse this was to buy a Crusaders shirt – and wear it.
Dutch by descent, the Gielen family ran a dairy-farm beside the Waikato River. Michael, the eldest of six children, was born in 1971, at Cambridge. He was educated in Tokoroa. His parents joined the Catholic Charismatic movement, popular in the 1970s and 1980s. The family developed, and have retained, personal relations with Jesus. For Michael, this relationship sparked his call to the priesthood at the age of 10.
“I felt the call and it never went away. Of course, there were some ups and downs, but the call was consistent,” he says.
Years of study followed at Holy Cross Seminary as he prepared for his priestly ordination. He was ordained in 1997 and served in five parishes in the Hamilton Diocese. Fitting in further study, he gained his Bachelor of Theology at Otago University. Continued study brought him a Master’s Degree in Theology in America and a Licentiate in Theology, in Rome.
As well as pastoral and administrative work in parishes, he chaired the Gisborne Ministers Association, an inter-church group. Moving to Hamilton he became Vocations Director, a member of the Priests’ Council and College of Consultors, Dean of the Pacific Moana Deanery, and was active in the ecumenical movement. He served also as Director of Formation (for seminarians) in Auckland.
It may seem natural, then, that he was consecrated Auxiliary Bishop of Auckland, in 2020. Only two years later, he became Bishop of Christchurch.
The bishop brings strong Catholic principles to Canterbury, with an informed understanding of the difficulties people may have with some of the Church’s doctrines and practices. His blend of conservative and progressive shows in his denial of women priests and his strong support for women taking top roles in Church leadership.
A key notion for the Bishop is “apostolic”. He loves the unbroken connection of Catholic faith dating from Jesus and the Apostles, a beautiful concept fundamental to the Church. This implies the discipline of Roman Rites that cannot be changed.
While the Roman Rites rule out women priests, he concedes the barrier against marriage for priests could possibly be lifted at some stage. Asked for his own view on married priests, he replies: “I am torn”. He expresses a dilemma in this matter, as a husband marries his wife, while a priest marries the Church.
The bishop notes the many allegations of “clericalism” made by respondents to the recent Synodal Church survey. “Clericalism is the misuse of power,” he says. He “will look for it” and if people are unhappy about it, he “will listen to them”. He cautions, though, that in such misuse the blame is not always with the priests.
Bishop Michael has particular interest in ecumenism. He relates how the Anglican Bishop of Christchurch welcomed him and has kept in touch since. In his ecumenical work he has come to rate highly the friendship and cooperation that exist among Christian churches in New Zealand.
“Ecumenism is not dying. We (the churches) are closer than ever,” he says.
Michael Crean, author
Photographs from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Media Collection