A Journey from Sonntagberg to Macau


Fr. Franz Gassner, SVD

I was blessed to grow up in a large family of five children, along with my parents and grandparents, on a small farm in the Alps of Austria. My father died young from cancer, so we children had to work hard on the farm to make ends meet. Since then, I have truly loved nature, and faith has also played a meaningful role in my life. We walked an hour on foot to attend Sunday mass and prayed the Holy Rosary together on Saturday evenings, led by my grandfather. I still see his big rosary made of dried olives hanging on the wall. In hindsight, the daily practice of faith was important to me, especially in finding my way during times of crises and decisions.

My home parish, Sonntagberg (“Sundayhill”), is run by Benedictine monks and is a rare pilgrim church dedicated to the Holy Trinity, situated on a mountain top, similar to Penha Hill, but at an elevation of 704 meters. Our famous Baroque organ, which began playing in 1776, still plays well today. It is a small, lively parish with deep faith and a caring community. We have several annual parish pilgrimages on foot to neighboring parishes, which had a positive impact on me in finding my own vocation. Our Catholic youth group organized many activities, including theater and soccer, and also helped the elderly.

I attended a technical school where I studied electrical engineering, combining theory and practice. Physics became my favorite subject, and I developed a love for reading books. In hindsight, I see that God guided me step by step through these interests and experiences toward a more comprehensive (in Greek: Catholic) missionary and priestly vocation and ministry. I initially pursued physics at the Technical University of Vienna, but soon realized there were deeper questions beyond physics—those of metaphysics, ethics, philosophy, and even theology. The Chernobyl accident in 1986 triggered a crisis in me, leading me to change my studies to Catholic Religious Education at the University of Vienna.

While still a layperson and student, I had the opportunity to visit the Philippines, specifically the Prelature of Infanta (under Bishop Julio Labayen OCD) in Quezon Province. Witnessing its commitment to the poor and to justice and peace was an eye-opener, revealing to me the global relevance of the Church’s ministry. This experience also influenced my vocational journey, ultimately leading me to join the Divine Word Missionaries in Austria.

God leads us gradually, step by step, in discovering our specific vocation and mission. We must be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, recognizing God’s presence in our daily experiences, questions, and struggles. For those who believe in the Holy Spirit, there are no accidents. Every step of our journey and every minute of our life is filled with deeper meaning and relevance.

As a missionary priest, it is a joy to be a channel and instrument for unity, hope, peace, and meaning for the faithful of the church and beyond. Many people are seeking hope, healing, meaning, and community life. There is essentially no difference in what people are looking for, whether they are in Lafayette, Louisiana, Vienna, Austria, or Macau, China, which is a uniquely blessed place to serve. The Church plays a crucial role in nourishing people, offering healing, and building communities.

As SVD missionaries, we are called to assist bishops and their dioceses in building parishes, churches, schools, universities, and cultural and social institutions in whatever way we can. For me, mission as a Divine Word Missionary also means learning from other cultures and traditions and helping to enrich our Church with the valuable aspects of these cultures and traditions. Every culture and country has treasures to offer, such as the value placed on family and children in Asia, or the importance of sharing meals together.

I am grateful to God for my vocation and for the good people who have accompanied me in finding and living it, and who continue to help me live it today. There will always be challenges, of course, but we grow with the help of the Lord’s presence and His saving grace within all the difficulties we face. Looking to the cross is important for me, as it reminds me that we are not left alone in any difficulty. He gives us the hope and strength needed for our vocation and mission.

Fr. Franz Gassner is Associate Professor in the Faculty for Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Saint Joseph. He hails from Austria.)