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 | By Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

“God called me here.”

In answering the call to the priesthood, Father Matthew discovered just who God truly is— and who he is, too

There are two main points in Matthew Gembrowski’s vocation story, which he insists isn’t much of a story at all.

The first is the moment he was at Mass in seventh or eighth grade and simply thought, “That’s what I’m supposed to do.”

As he continued through high school, he kept the idea in the back of his mind, only telling his father Martin, who encouraged him to continue to pray about it.

“I always saw my dad, how he took his faith seriously, and it was normal. And so I took my faith seriously,” Father Matt said.

A faithful foundation

Father Matt grew up in a family of eight children, including two sets of twins, in the Freeland-Saginaw area. He described his family as “very Catholic, but not super Catholic,” attending St. Josaphat Parish in Carrollton, now St. John Paul II Parish, and praying the Rosary together sometimes.

“Church was not just Sundays for an hour,” said Sharon Gembrowski, Father Matt’s mother, adding that her children joined her when she cleaned the church and they often attended parish activities. “If there was something extra happening, we were there— making church available and not a chore.”

Sharon explained that just being around a church environment allowed them to be more comfortable with their faith as a part of everyday life.

“If it’s important to you, they’ll see it’s important,” she said.

After Mass on Sundays, the children explored their faith in depth through religious education workbooks their father purchased. As they grew older, they were to research different topics, such as Vatican II, for discussion. Father Matt credits this practice for helping him learn the depth of the Catholic faith.

Father Matt, along with his twin brother Peter, graduated from Nouvel Catholic Central High School in Saginaw in 2015. During his time there, he was grateful for the opportunity to attend weekday Mass and get to know other priests as he continued to discern his own path.

The feeling that God wanted him to be a priest never went away, so Father Matt approached Father Andy Booms, then-director of priestly vocations, and applied for seminary. After high school graduation, he went to St. John Vianney College Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

He felt different from many of his fellow seminarians, several of whom had powerful prayer experiences or big conversion stories. His vocation story, he felt, was boring by comparison.

“‘I just feel like God wants me to be a priest. So I signed up and now I’m here,’” he recalled saying during a seminary group discussion.

And he kept showing up— even when he felt like he was only there “because God wants.” And, gradually, he discovered something else.

Seminary includes four pillars of formation:  human, spiritual, academic and pastoral. His time at St. John Vianney, then at Mundelein Seminary in Illinois, helped him mature as a person and spiritually.

“Going into college seminary, I had so many ideas about God that were very wrong, like he makes all these rules, kind of (like) a taskmaster,” he said.

As he continued with spiritual direction and formation, his relationship with God matured as well.

Through prayer, Father Matt came to deeply believe the key to his identity:  “I’m a beloved son before anything else.”

That, he said, was freeing. And that shift marks the second point in his vocation story.

A beloved son

Father Matt reflected that he was a beloved son of God, and that God had given him free will and control of his life. But, he continued, any vocation must be pursued not only because that’s what God wants. Our loving Father wanted him to choose the path, and Father Matt had to trust that if this was God’s calling, then God wouldn’t let him down.

“When I finally took that step and said, ‘I’m going to presume one day I’ll be a priest and I’m actively choosing this; I’m going to embrace it—’ it changed everything,” he recalled.

In short, he wanted to be a priest because the One he loves desired it. Anxiety about the future melted away.

“I know the One who has called me here. I have 100 percent confidence he has asked me to do this,” he said. “The church has affirmed it, and I feel like God has affirmed it in my own prayer life. He hasn’t abandoned me so far, and I have no reason to believe he’s going to in the future.”

Sharon remembers their weekly video chat after the retreat where this turning point occurred.

“He just sounded different. He just said that this was an awesome retreat, and I’m ready,” she recalled. “And from then on, he was ready.”

Father Matt has to look no further than the crucifix for a reminder of his mission.

“Through the crucifix, life changes. You’re offering your life sacrificially for others:  that’s the vocation of everybody. Jesus came down to show us how to live, to redeem us and take us to Heaven,” Father Matt said. “Imitating that is the best thing anyone could do. Your whole life changes if you live from that mentality.”

His hope, he said, is to do that in his own life and encourage others to do the same, so “we can all be saints together in Heaven.” 

“Don’t be afraid.”

After earning a bachelor’s degree in philosophy at St. John Vianney College Seminary, Father Matt attended Mundelein Seminary in the Chicago suburbs, where he completed major seminary with a Master of Divinity and baccalaureate in sacred theology.

During his time at Mundelein, he participated in their teaching parish program. Father Matt was assigned to St. Moses the Black Parish on Chicago’s South Side.

“It was an awesome assignment,” he said. “I really appreciated that.”

The predominantly-Black parish thrived with a worship style that seemed, at first, to be too different from his preferred Mass style. Trusting that God placed him in the parish for a reason, he learned about the diverse ways in which all God’s people can praise God and how to serve more pastorally.

His faith was also strengthened by encounters with those living in poverty and experiencing homelessness or addiction. He would pray with them and try to offer spiritual counsel.

“Trusting that the Spirit moves in those circumstances has really strengthened my faith,” he said.

In many ways, Father Matt’s vocation story is one of learning to trust the Spirit. He recalled Jesus’ exhortation often repeated by Pope St. John Paul II:  “Don’t be afraid.”

“I was very afraid (of) what people would think of me,” he said. “If you want to get to know the God who created you, pray and don’t be afraid.”

This complete trust in God’s will led Father Matt to the altar on May 12, where Bishop Robert Gruss ordained him to the priesthood at the Cathedral of Mary of the Assumption in Saginaw.

“Behold, I make all things new.”

During the ordination Mass, Father Matt was vested in his priestly garments— a stole and chasuble— by Father Jim Bessert. Bishop Gruss anointed his hands with sacred chrism oil, symbolizing his distinctive participation in Christ’s priesthood, and placed bread and wine into Father Matt’s hands, pointing to his duty of celebrating the Eucharist and following Christ crucified. The chalice and paten, gifts from his family, were presented by his mother Sharon and twin Peter.

“Jesus Christ himself, our great High Priest, has chosen you to carry out publicly in his name, and on behalf of humankind, this priestly office in the Church,” Bishop Gruss told Father Matt in his homily, quoting John 15:16. “‘It was not you who chose me, but I who chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit that will remain, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name he may give you.’ Your vocation was ‘born out of an encounter’ with Christ, and you are called to give witness to the resurrection of Jesus before the world.”

Father Matt described the weekend of his ordination as being full of graces.

“The ordination Mass was one of the greatest moments of my life! Jesus, through the ministry of the bishop, conformed my person to himself in a radical and permanent way,” Father Matt said. “Receiving the chalice and paten from my own family was a blessing, reminding me of where I came from and what I am called to. Concelebrating the Eucharist with Bishop Gruss, I was able to look out over a congregation full of those who have supported me from the time I was a small child. I give thanks to God that I come from the Diocese of Saginaw and that I will serve the Diocese of Saginaw in my priestly ministry.”

“We are all very proud of you and looking forward to the amazing things the Lord will do through your ministry,” Bishop Gruss said in his homily. “Every priest is a sign of God’s love, a sign that God is still working in the world, still carrying out his plan of redemption.”

On the chalice from his family are the words: “Behold, I make all things new” (Rev. 21:5).

Father Matt knows, deeply, that the Lord makes all things new through the crucifix, through Jesus’ death and resurrection. He sees God at work in the many people who supported him through seminary with their prayers, letters and encouragement. Most of all, he wants others to know of the importance of cultivating a deep prayer life with the God who loves them.

“You have to know the One who created you,” he insisted. “Prayer has changed my life, and I hope it changes other people’s (lives), too. That would be awesome.”

Prayer 101 with Father Matt:

  • Make a commitment to show up every day, whether I feel like it or not.
  • Empty my mind and open myself up to the Lord.
  • Let the Lord love me.
  • Tell him how much I love him and tell him what’s going on in my life.
  • Persevere through dry spells.
  • Remember that great saints and mystics in Church history experienced dryness in prayer. One’s spiritual journey will include times of both consolation and desolation.
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch
Photo by Danielle McGrew Tenbusch

Father Matt will begin his first assignment at St. Brigid of Kildare Parish and School in Midland, where he will serve as parochial vicar. He will also be parochial vicar of St. Mary University Parish on the Central Michigan University campus in Mount Pleasant.