Interview with Rev. Fr. Franz Gassner, SVD
How does one discover his call? Is Philosophy still relevant to our pragmatic generation? Rev Fr Franz Gassner, of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD) shares his thoughts with O CLARIM. Fr Gassner is Assistant Professor in the Faculty for Christian Studies at the University of Saint Joseph. He hails from Vienna, Austria.
Fr Gassner, thank you for joining us. To start with when and where were you born and can you tell us briefly about family?
I was born in a mountainous region of Austria and grew up in a family of five children, four boys and one girl. My father died young, so, we had to help and work hard on our farm to make a living. Since then I really loved nature very much. I went to a technical school and studied electrical engineering. There, physics became my most favorite subject. I also loved to study and read books. The parish at my home place is run by Benedictine monks. It was a lively and caring parish, which was a positive important experience for me. Our youth group organized many events in the parish and helped the old people.
Call to Priesthood
When did you feel the calling to priesthood? Please share your vocation story.
Actually, God led me step by step to the priesthood, beginning with my love for nature, creation, and physics. After my Matura (high-school exit exam) I went to study physics at the Technical University of Vienna, our capital. But soon I realized that there is more than Physics in life, e.g. there is Metaphysics, Ethics, Philosophy, and even Theology. The accident in Chernobyl happened 1986 when I was studying Physics and many questions come to my mind regarding the purpose and meaning of life etc. I loved to study Physics but I felt that God called me to move beyond Physics. I changed my studies and enrolled in the program of Catholic Religious Education at the University of Vienna, still as a lay person.
The first 2 years of this study deals mainly with philosophical modules and this opened a new world of understanding for me. Philosophy touches much deeper questions of life than solving technical challenges such as how to connect mobile phones electronically. At the university I also got to know the Divine Word Missionaries teaching there (e.g. Hebrew, Missiology). Hence, meeting missionaries also expanded my own horizon and I got interested in other parts of the world, and the engagement of the Church there. More and more I realized the relevance of the Good News for human life, for cultures, for shaping human hearts and history.
In 1989, when I was studying theology, the massacre at Tiananmen Square, China, happened on June 4th and this was a shock for most students in Europe. This event was also a turning point in my life. I realized that if the Good News is that important then it needs commitment. I realized that it makes sense to join a missionary congregation and I still think our world would be a better place if there were more missionaries giving witness to the good news and helping dioceses to serve the people. I was still a lay person at that time, but I got the chance to visit the Philippines in the context of a partnership of the Diocese of Vienna with the Prelature of Infanta in Quezon. This was again an eye-opener for me to see the global dimension of the work of the Church and to learn that the mission of the Church goes beyond the confines of European issues, helping the poor and promoting social justice. This visit was another step on my journey to finally decide to join the Divine Word Missionaries. To summarize, my own experience is that God can lead also gradually, step by step in discovering our specific vocation and mission. But we have to be open to his guidance in our life, and good people, especially also a spiritual director can help a lot to discern the will of God in one’s life properly.
After my studies and formation, I was ordained a priest in 1995 in St. Gabriel near Vienna. I worked for 4 years in a parish in Vienna, caring for the young people and I was also teaching at the Secondary School. Then I was sent to Louisiana/USA to get to know the pastoral work of the Divine Word Missionaries among the Afro-Americans in the U.S. Then I studied Philosophy at Boston College for two years. Being called back to Austria, I worked in formation for the next ten years until 2012. I was responsible for a small international formation community of SVD, guiding and helping young confreres in their formation and studies at the University of Vienna. After that, in 2012, I was called to Macau to help here in teaching at USJ.
What have been your joys and struggles as a priest?
(JOYS) I think my joy is to be a priest for the people and to give witness to Jesus Christ through our ministry. It is a joy to see how the Good News is meaningful for the people in every culture. It does not matter whether you preside the Mass and proclaim the Good News in New Orleans, in Boston, in Vienna, in Jakarta, in Cebu, or in Macau: the Good News is very important for the people, experiencing hope and community, forgiveness and renewal by the help of God. There is not much difference what people are really looking for in different cultures and contexts: meaning, hope, community, forgiveness, help, and answers to ultimate questions of life. The Church has a very important role in helping people and communities. As SVD missionaries we are called to help bishops and their dioceses to build up Churches, schools, universities, cultural and social institutions, in whatever way we can. This is our specific mission as Divine Word Missionaries and I think this is precious and meaningful.
(STRUGGLES) Of course, sometimes we struggle with loneliness. But my own experience is that loneliness only occurs when I forget to pray or to care for the poor. The Good News applies first also to our own life. This a challenge for us priests and religious people to learn everyday from Jesus, of his love, his presence, his care and forgiveness.
Moving to Macau
Fr Gassner, are you the first SVD priest from Austria in Macau?
No! Another Austrian SVD priest, Fr Matthias Christian, invited me, who spent his whole life working in China, mainly in Taiwan. The last six years he has been serving here in Macau. Last year he was sent to South-Sudan to help there for one year in a very challenging situation starting a new seminary. To be a missionary means to go beyond our walls, our thinking, and to help in the best way we can.
Can you share with us what motivated your choice to come to the Macau?
In 2011 I finished my formation work, and also my PhD project in Social Ethics, and the invitation to come to Macau to teach at the University of Saint Joseph came at the same time. I wrote my doctoral thesis on the ‘Ethics of Consumption’ because I realized the Church has also to study this field of ethics related to our life-style, to justice, and proper care for resources and the environment. So I wrote a PhD thesis on this topic and finished it in 2012. I had the chance to come to Macau to offer my support here. China was always in my mind, since China is the very first country the SVD sent missionaries to and thus China is a very important country for our congregation. So we help in whatever way we can.
What do you think of the people of Macau?
We can learn a lot from the people of Macau, they are very family- and community-oriented. It’s very beautiful to see this family and community spirit, of eating together, respecting the elderly etc. Mission, for us SVDs, means also to learn from other cultures and traditions and to help to enrich our Church with whatever is precious in other cultures and traditions. Every culture, every country has treasures, something very valuable to give to others. The Church can receive everything that is good from other cultures, and finally we can become one family or brothers and sisters. Today we live in a more and more interconnected globalized world. But there is the huge challenge and need to globalize justice and solidarity, e.g. in the field of work, consumption of resources, the environment, and also the financial system. The mission of the Church is very important to give witness to the Good News and to promote human dignity, justice, solidarity in our world today. This is an important issue in my research.
Are you learning Cantonese or Mandarin at the moment? What is your experience of language learning and inculturation?
I have been taking Cantonese courses offered by the government school program. They are very good courses but they only bring you to a beginner’s level. But I am also very limited in my time since I have a full teaching load at the University. I started also to learn some Mandarin because then you will also learn the Chinese characters, which is very important. I try to learn more with my little time left in the evening classes.
Do you ever feel discouraged by the challenges in your life? How do you handle them?
The best way is to pray by going to the church or the chapel and offer your challenges to Jesus and ask Him for help, not forgetting the saints. There will always be challenges of course. But we grow with His help in the challenges we face. Also looking to the cross is important for me and to know that we are not left alone in any challenge or difficulty. He gives us hope, strength, and wisdom.
What has been your greatest frustration or disappointment in teaching or in your present position and why do you feel this way?
At beginning I was only teaching Chinese students, local students, students studying communication, psychology, or business. Of course I don’t understand their local language and I had to teach in English different modules and I couldn’t really understand them and what they were talking towards each other outside the classroom. This was kind of frustrating for me, not to be able to talk to them or to understand them from their culture and aspirations. This is was a bit frustrating. That is why I started to learn some basics of Cantonese to get at least an idea what a conversation is about. It is also a huge challenge to prepare new modules. This takes a lot of time. But it’s a positive one.
I also suffer a bit from the pollution here in Macau. I can feel it in my lungs. This is why we have to do more in the field of ‘ethics of consumption’ of environmental protection and be more responsible with our resources and environment. Religions and the Catholic Church have a huge role here because they work on the level of forming habits, virtues, attitudes, and cultures in the long run. Catholic Social Teaching can contribute to understand better what is going on in our world and how we can promote justice and truth in this context. We have to change an “economy that kills” (Pope Francis) into an economy that is responsible and just, respecting cultures and peoples, our environment, and of course future generations.
What motivates you? How do you motivate students?
The main motivation is to discover and find meaning in life, to realize that my life and world is deeply meaningful. This is something I learnt already when studying Physics and Mathematics: there is a deep meaning behind everything and for Christians this meaning is ultimately related to God the Creator and to our Lord as Savior. He is the master, designer and planner of everything and we are deeply related to Him and all the time called to learn from Him. So in the university or in a classroom, the issue is to find the deeper meaning behind everything, my life, my vocation, my subject of studies, my personal challenges etc. Faith, hope, and love (the classical theological virtues) can help here quite a lot to find meaning on our journey of life. Ultimately, God is the source of all meaning in life (vocation). To help young people to find meaning in their life (their vocation) is probably the best service we can offer.
So to help the students, step by step in a certain way to understand life, our world, development, and their own vocation etc. We also learn from each other when we really care for the other. The biggest task is to learn to do the will of God in all of this. What does God want me to do? What is my specific mission and vocation?
It is helpful to learn to understand historical developments and how they shaped and formed the present time. We can find meaning in them and appreciation of the good we received. In the 3rd Eucharistic Prayer we always pray to Our Lord Jesus Christ, who “gives to the world all that is good”. What does this actually mean and is related to? This is actually the task to realize, to learn, to see, what Jesus gave to the world that is good. And here, there is lot to learn, a lot to discover, a lot of research if necessary.
What is the value of philosophy for today’s pragmatic world?
Philosophy is very important because God creates us as human beings with talents, also the talent to reason and understand, to think and to judge. It’s a gift we have to develop. We have to be thankful to the Church that we study philosophy within Catholic Theology. This is a great advantage and treasure. We have this tool, this instrument of thinking, which is very important for theology and for the Church.
We see in parts of the Muslim world what happens when philosophy and thinking is lacking. This is very dangerous, for institutions and religions. So we have to be very thankful that our Church treasures philosophy, the human search for meaning and understanding, also to understand cultures, traditions, and the quest for God. Philosophy is also important to help us to understand and express the deep mystery of Salvation.
Why would it be good to know the history of Philosophy?
It’s important because it helps us to understand other cultures and traditions and generally the relevance of the quest for happiness as expressed in the philosophy of Aristotle. The history of philosophy is also important to understand the development of sciences and our modern world. Our modern sciences are fruits of the philosophical quest and their development can only be understood with philosophy. If we lack this kind of thinking and understanding, then we are in danger to head towards wrong directions, e.g. a culture of wastefulness and pollution, which is based on a lack of reflection and a wrong overall thinking and understanding. Today we have to learn anew what is going on with us, as Pope Benedict XVI said 2011: “We must listen to the language of nature and we must answer accordingly.” (German Parliament, Sept. 22nd 2011). For this we need the tool of philosophy, to understand ourselves and our proper place and to find ways beyond a wrong headed throw away culture. But foremost, we have to learn to understand how God is guiding us in our life and history.
When you look back at your life, how do you want to be remembered?
I like to be remembered as one who found meaning and his vocation in Jesus Christ, and who witnessed to Him as the Way, the Truth and the Life for all humankind.