There’s a saying “Man plans, God laughs”.
It’s something that rings especially true for Father Wieslaw “Wesley” Spiewak, the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Hamilton.
Ten years ago, while still living in his native country Poland, Fr Spiewak fell seriously ill due to chronic pancreatitis, followed by a cyst on the pancreas; the disease caused his pancreas to become inflamed and resulted in disabling pain and weight loss.
On heavy medicines and a strict diet, Fr Wesley saw many of his life plans go out the window. For nearly six months he was confined to a small bedroom hooked up to tubes and machines.
“It was a hard experience, but a good one in that it changed a lot of things,” he explained. “Before that I had been making plans for my life, but I had to put all other activities and plans to the side to spend the year focusing on getting better.
“I understood at that point the world wasn’t going to end with my end; and my religious community wasn’t going to collapse if I didn’t or couldn’t do my job. I realised I was just a small part of the world and community and the church. It was very humbling.”
He counts it a miracle he recovered, especially considering how bad the situation was.
“I still have to observe a certain diet, but the condition is managed,” he said. “I learnt it is God’s job to have His plans and it’s our job to try to discover His path based on our aspirations, expectations and even through our failures or difficulties.
“The Bible says God shapes us as clay in His likeness, but I believe we have to take responsibility for shaping us as well by being obedient and sensitive to His voice. Following God’s plan is always best, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.”
Growing up in Cracow, Poland, Fr Spiewak’s parents were very active in the Catholic faith. Attending church was mandatory in his household, but not something he originally desired as a career. As a teenager his mind was set on becoming an ornithologist (an expert on birds); he also attended the local technical college.
“That changed one day when I was walking in the outskirts of the city,” he explained. “I don’t remember if it was the sermon from that same day or the day before, but a verse of scripture just came to my mind.
“The scripture was about how Jesus was walking with his disciples through the wheat fields — and just sitting there that day, nature spoke to me in a very profound way. I have no idea why it came to my mind. I wasn’t used to meditating on the Gospel, those are things I learnt later when in seminary. It just happened that I was plagued by these questions — and that led me to look for the answer in God.”
His mother was pleased when he decided to pursue full-time ministry, his dad, however, had hoped he would go on to become the first of his children to finish university and get a good paying job.
In 1984, Fr Spiewak began his studies of philosophy and theology; two years later he went to Rome, Italy to start his religious career. In total he spent 16 years in the Southern European country serving with the Community of the Resurrection — enjoying every minute of it.
“Italy became my second homeland,” he said. “I tell people my heart is partially Italian, but my stomach is totally Italian. My mom once told me I’m more Italian than Polish.”
He returned to Poland years later after being elected by members of the Community of the Resurrection to sit as Polish Provincial Superior.
During that time he was in charge of supervising more than 200 members of the clergy in eight countries around the world including Australia, Bermuda and Bolivia. However, after two terms he decided to give up the administrative role in favour of carrying out ordinary, people-based ministry. His initial idea was to go back to Italy and serve a small Parish community there, but then once again God had something different in mind.
Fr Spiewak got the call out of the blue on behalf of Pope Francis inviting him, through the Apostolic Nuncio in Trinidad and Tobago, to take over from Bishop Robert Kurtz, who was set to retire from his post in Bermuda.
“I asked the Nuncio how much time I would have to think about it. It was absolutely unexpected,” he said. “One second I was leaving the office and trying to get things in order to move to Italy, but then everything changed with one phone call. I had to pack up everything I could fit with me into two suitcases.”
The good news is he was welcomed with open arms by the Bermuda Catholic Community.
Although English is his third language, he’s found the people to be very kind and patient with him.