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Catholic Vancouver April 30, 2018

Missionary priest’s journey from rags to spiritual riches 

By Agnieszka Krawczynski

Father Gilbert Nunez looks out of the Redemptoris Mater seminary in Vancouver. Once from a poor family, he is now a missionary priest and trains other young men about a life of evangelism, service, and trust. (Photos by Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)

VANCOUVER—He would collect tin cans from junk yards in the Philippines to support his family; now, Father Gilbert Nunez is a world-travelling missionary.

“I never planned to become a priest,” said Father Nunez, who trains men for priesthood and the mission field as the rector of Vancouver’s Redemptoris Mater seminary.

“I was formed in a Catholic school, with nuns. I knew all prayers by memory, I prayed the Rosary every day in the month of October, and every Sunday I had to be (at Mass) because they check your attendance,” he said.

But those first seeds of faith fell on rocky ground. “I transferred to public school. There, it was totally different. They don’t require you to be there. That’s the time I left the Church.”

His family’s difficult situation intensified his faith crisis. He was the youngest of his parent’s eight children, living in poverty with a hardworking father who hardly made enough money to pay the family’s debts. Gilbert found himself digging through junk yards in search of tin cans.

“My brothers were very creative. They were transforming cans thrown into the garbage into toys. I was the youngest, so I was the one sent to gather those cans from the garbage and clean them,” he said.

A ray of hope shone into their lives when an American sponsor offered to pay for Gilbert’s education. His father was optimistic his youngest son would get a good job one day and free the family from poverty. But for Gilbert, the opportunity came with a cross.

“I was studying with the children of the rich families in the town, and when I got back home, I lived this kind of life. I was ashamed of myself,” he said. “I was told God is just and God is love. But where is he in my situation? I said, ‘if God does not care for us, I have to do it myself.’”

Gilbert studied, trusting hard work and good grades would land him a job to support his family. “My father was putting all his hope in me, because my brothers were already married, so I was one that would study straight, without interruption, because someone was paying for my school. Through that, I was able to finish college.”

He also had a girlfriend and dreamed about starting a family with her after finishing his studies.

During his academic pursuits, Gilbert stayed in touch with the Neocatechumenal Way, a worldwide but parish-based community that meets regularly and encourages its members to rediscover their vocations as Christians. One of their events turned his life upside down.

“There came this occasion where there was a call: ‘Does anyone here feel called by God?’”

Despite his and his father’s plans, something pulled at Gilbert’s heart. He wondered if he was meant to become a priest, and began discerning his vocation with the help of the Neocatechumenal Way community.

Fathers Luis Delgado and Gilbert Nunez (back row) with seminarians from around the world live at the Redemptoris Mater seminary on Heather Street in Vancouver. 

“God gave me many signs.” On one occasion, out of the blue, his father told him: “Gilbert, I will die happy if I see you a priest.”

During pre-seminary discernment, he was sent to live with a rich family in Manila along with another would-be seminarian. The couple had a huge home and owned many vehicles, but, “they were living full of fears,” he said.

The home was surrounded by high fences and the couple’s three daughters had moved to the United States and didn’t stay in touch. The pair was rich, lonely, and treated their employees poorly. “Is this what money makes of a man? I would never like this,” he thought. “I was so fortunate in the life I was cursing before.”

His anxiety about his poor family slowly evaporated. “The situation with the family remained the same. Nothing changed with us. Truly, I could work, and I could realize that dream to change (my family’s situation),” he said.

But, “the God who is calling me is the God of history, the one who gives life. Why should I worry? He will worry about my family.”

He spent three years in pre-formation before entering seminary studies. Then, at a meeting with hundreds of other seminary candidates from Neocatechumenal Way communities across the globe, he stepped forward saying he was willing to become a missionary priest.

Their names were thrown into a basket and chosen at random for study at any Redemptoris Mater seminary (currently 115 exist) around the world. Gilbert, hoping to go to an English-speaking country, was sent to Taiwan.

“It was a short flight, but they have a totally different culture.” Trying to cope with culture shock, he learned Chinese on the go and studied in a seminary for 10 years before he was ordained. Two years later, Father Nunez became a vice rector for a local seminary, trying to revitalize a diocese with aging religious and no new vocations.

Fathers Nunez and Delgado (centre) with Neocatechumenal Way seminarians in the seminary chapel.

He spent a total of 20 years in mission in China and Taiwan. Now he’s in Vancouver, training eight men from Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, the Philippines, Rwanda, the United States to become missionary priests.

“Faith is not just living for yourself, but it is going out. It is to give,” he said. While diocesan seminaries, such as Christ the King in Mission, train men who will likely spend the rest of their lives serving locally, the Neocatechumenal Way seminaries train priests who are ordained in a diocese, promise obedience to that bishop, and spend a handful of years serving locally before being sent to missions across the world. Redemptoris Mater was opened in Vancouver with the special aim of training priests for China.

“To breathe, you first inhale, and you exhale, too,” said Father Nunez. “(The Church) has to be missionary. This is our desire.”

Father Luis Delgado, the seminary’s spiritual director, was born in Peru, but has served in Italy, Africa, and even 13 years in France.

“One of the charisms of the Way is to be itinerant priests, to lead people, and to be in some place without a salary, without anything, only with providence, and to create these communities to evangelize,” he said.

The seminary relies on neighbours and Neocatechumenal Way communities for support. Volunteers cook, donate, and find other ways to support future missionaries, and a fundraiser that sold out at 400 tickets raised over $53,000 for the seminary.

“People are very generous with us,” said Father Delgado. “For priests to have communities, we don’t feel alone. It’s a very important point for us.”

Father Nunez is thrilled with the progress of Vancouver’s Redemptoris Mater seminary. In its first four years, it is on track to ordain four missionary priests.

“From where did those early Christians get this strength, that even when they were offered in the arena, they were still singing for joy? It’s the catechumenate. Also, the strength of the community,” said Father Nunez.

Father Gilbert Nunez says Vancouver’s Redemptoris Mater seminary is on track to ordain four missionary priests.

He never imagined he would leave Manila, learn Chinese, and entrust his whole life to God as a missionary. “Either you are crazy, or you have faith. Those are the only two things,” he said.

“I don’t worry if I don’t have money tomorrow or we don’t have much in the bank. What I worry is: ‘Is this a work of God or not?’ If this is the work of God, then he has to worry about it.”