24 Feb A Humble Man of God
by Fr. David May
Fr. Gerry’s life, an unusual one, is a story about the unending patience of God.
On November 17, 1991, a car with Alaska licence plates drove into the parking lot of Madonna House, chock full of boxes, books, suitcases, in short, all the driver’s worldly possessions—or at least most of them. The driver was a 64-year-old priest named Gerhard Wallner.
He had recently received permission from Fr. Bob Pelton, then the director general of priests, to spend a length of time at Madonna House. Although he was 64 years old, Fr. Gerry (as he was called) had only been a priest for about two years.
I later learned that Fr. Gerry had come to Madonna House by quite a circuitous route. He was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927. In that city renowned for its pastry, his family owned and ran a pastry and coffee shop in the heart of downtown.
But World War II shattered that idyllic world. On March 12, 1938, when Gerhard was eleven years old, Nazi Germany invaded Austria. So during his teenage years, he was living under Hitler in the heart of a war-ravaged Europe.
Though he was too young to be drafted into the army, he was, like virtually every boy his age, a member of Hitler Youth.
By the end of the war, however, his age did not save him. The Allies were winning the war, and the Nazis, desperately looking for anybody they could throw against these invading forces, were drafting the Hitler Youth and older men.
So Gerhard went to war—and deserted. If Fr. Gerry told you this and you sounded impressed, he would say, “Everything was in chaos. All you had to do was walk away. Lots of people did.”
Some of us remember him saying that he walked and others that he rode a bicycle, but be that as it may, he made his way across Germany until he reached home. Whatever horrors he saw along the way, he didn’t talk about them.
Even at that time, at the age of about 17, Gerhard felt a call from the Lord to the priesthood, but as he admitted himself, he told the Lord he didn’t think it was quite time yet to respond to such a call.
Shortly after the war, Gerhard made his first stop on his long pilgrimage. He went to South Africa where he thought to make money working in the gold mines. He worked with explosives—attaching them to lines, and then running away fast. It was obviously a dangerous job.
From there he went to England where he studied nursing. The English he had learned enabled him to later find work in Canada, in Northern Ontario, as a public health nurse.
The next stage was in New York where he studied anaesthesiology and became a nurse anaesthetist. While there, he also studied at Fordham, a Jesuit university, where he got his degree in philosophy. In preparation for perhaps going to the seminary some day?
During all these years—we’re now into the 1970s—he still felt a call to the priesthood, which he continued to put off.
It wasn’t until 1984, at the age of 57, that Gerry finally decided to say yes to that call. He entered a seminary.
I’m not sure how he ended up in the Diocese of Fairbanks, Alaska, but, obviously, he was never afraid of adventure and faraway places. He was ordained there in 1989.
Fr. Gerry had finally found his vocation. However, he still had not found his home, and his search, his pilgrimage, continued. He did not feel at home in that diocese. It was a matter more of the theological and liturgical climate than of the weather conditions.
So within two years of ordination, he asked his bishop for a leave of absence so that he could explore other possibilities to live out his priestly vocation.
He tried or seriously considered three or four options. There was, for example, an opportunity to be a university chaplain, but it became clear this was not the will of God.
He was attracted to the Companions of the Cross, and he thought that the Lord wanted him to work with them in a parish in Ottawa. He would become a diocesan priest in Ottawa affiliated with the Companions. That didn’t work out either.
Then one day, when he told his story to a priest in Ottawa, that priest said to him, “Why don’t you go to Madonna House for a while to further discern God’s will for you?” And so he did.
Then after he was here for a few months, this 64-year-old man, already a priest, asked to join our spiritual formation program, which is mainly for young men discerning priesthood. After that, again believe it or not, he asked to join Madonna House. And he was accepted!
At that time, Fr. Gerry wrote:
“Our Lady seems to have directed me in her own mysterious way to her house in Combermere, and it still seems unbelievable to me that I am now in the process of becoming an applicant priest.
“I know it is going to be a challenge to change my life-style, but after pondering the Lord’s will for six months and trying to listen to the Spirit, I have really come to believe that Madonna House is the place where God wants me to be.
“As I enter this school of love, my prayer is that I will be open enough to become in whatever way, big or small, a vital link that will help to restore all things in Christ.
“The Lord indeed writes straight with crooked lines. I only hope and pray that I will be able to surrender myself totally to Christ so that he will not have to continue to write my life story in a crooked line. May his will be done.”
Fr. Gerry might be the oldest priestly vocation we have had so far. When he joined, I was director of training for applicant priests, priests in formation for joining Madonna House.
He and I moved to a small cabin. It was a rather rustic setting, with an outdoor jon and no running water, but it was quiet and peaceful. No telephone. Fr. Gerry loved it there.
What, you might ask, is it like for a priest who has had other life experiences for many years, whether as a priest or, in Fr Gerry’s case, as a nurse and so forth, through many years, to join Madonna House and to “get” our life and absorb our spirituality?
At that time, in fact, people here were expressing doubts about Fr. Gerry because he was the age he was. Would he ever be able to really enter into our life?
So I explained to the local directors when they were here for their meetings what it is like for a priest to join Madonna House.
Think of a big merry-go-round, I told them. It has three speeds—slow, medium, and fast. They usually start slow and then get faster, so that you get a nice ride. That’s the way it was at amusement parks when I grew up.
I said that for a priest to join Madonna House is like trying to get on a fast-moving merry-go-round. He finally gets up the courage to make a leap, to try to do something, to make a move to help out, and he jumps. And people say, “Not quite like that, Father. You didn’t ask the LD (local director) … or the director general.” Or “That’s not quite it yet, but nice try.” So you back up and get another running start and try again.
Eventually, they make it. But it’s not easy, and it takes a certain gift of understanding from the community—which the community really does have. But it’s a work.
The question is: how can you know if a priest has a vocation to Madonna House? I would say that there are different signs: being able to live in community, loving Our Lady, and loving this vocation. But one sign that I would look for is that some lines of the Little Mandate [a summary of MH spirituality] would just light up in a person, and I could name names and give examples, but this is Fr. Gerry.
I’ll just say it was pretty obvious, pretty quickly, that with him, he was a very hidden person, but there was a light shining from him. Right from the beginning.
Not only that, but he prayed, prayed, prayed, prayed. To be with Fr. Gerry was to be with a man of deep prayer. This was true right from the beginning. The lines I could see in Fr. Gerry were: “Be hidden.” “Be a light to your neighbour’s feet.” “Pray always.” And that is what he really lived, I think, in all his years here.
I wondered what the title of this story should be: “Pilgrim of the Absolute.” He was a pilgrim, for sure. “Procrastination in 3 or 4 Easy Steps,” “The Eleventh-Hour Disciple;” “God Wrote Straight with Crooked Lines;” or, “God Made Crooked Lines Straight;” “Suffering Servant,” “Hidden Servant.” But the one I like best is “Humble Man of God.”