WelCom News
A newspaper for the Wellington and Palmerston North Catholic Dioceses

Birthing communities of saints in Aotearoa-New Zealand

Ann-Marie Harvey rsm

Pentecost reminds us of God’s Spirit birthing the Church. Throughout the Christian world faith communities have been reliving that first out-pouring of God’s Spirit which continues to call believers to ‘go out’ and ‘to preach God’s Good News’.

This year, Pentecost offered participants gathered under the banner of ‘Salt and Light’ at the Wellington Archdiocesan Synod an opportunity to examine, experience and renew what it means to be intentional faith communities. Through dedication and hard work representatives of God’s people in the archdiocese recommitted themselves to walk in the footsteps of Jesus Christ, to tell his truth and live his message.

From the time of the first Catholic families in New Zealand to the present, parishioners have lived their Christian call to holiness by generously giving of their time, talents and resources. Initially, they formed small faith communities in their homes. Later, after agitating for and welcoming clergy to this land they built churches in which to gather and celebrate liturgy and prayer. In response to God’s grace, they witnessed to their faith in villages, towns, halls, parliament, country squares and in isolated corners of Aotearoa-New Zealand.

What characterised the spiritual trailblazers in the story of the New Zealand Church was their passion for ‘coming together’ in local groups, to sing about and celebrate their faith. They confronted and overcame religious intolerance, social injustice, political challenges and conflicts of the day. Catholics in the Archdiocese of Wellington have lived this way since the early 1840s. Then, English Catholics who were settling in Wellington funded the Irish, Gaelic-speaking, Franciscan priest Fr Jeremiah O’Reily to minister to the growing numbers of Catholics and the few remaining Mori around Port Nicholson.

Later, Fr O’Reily joined the French Bishop Viard who spoke the so-called ‘New Zealand Language’ (Te Reo Mori). Together, they travelled throughout the lower part of the Wellington diocese from Kaikoura to Kapiti Island. Their visits offered spiritual support to widespread faith communities. Through homilies delivered by Fr O’Reily in English or Gaelic and by Bishop Viard in Mori and occasionally French, they shared the ‘salt and light’ of the Gospel, their talents and encouragement among Catholics and the wider society. Today, the identity of Catholics in Aotearoa-New Zealand is a similar but different story. Church communities are in a new phase of understanding their historical and social commitments, eg that of forming bicultural partnerships within a rich and diverse multicultural setting.

The fascinating story of God’s Spirit birthing Catholic men and women into ‘communities of saints’ in New Zealand tells of memorable characters and moments, as well as gatherings to celebrate sacramental liturgies or to have fun. Over time, passing generations of parishioners shaped our present kiwi Catholic identity. This identity is always ‘ever ancient, ever new’. For New Zealand Catholics, it means holding true to ancient traditions within the spirit of the age and being attentive to the evolving, changing nature of social movements and cultural life within Oceania. While most traditional beliefs and practices continue, some no longer reflect our present understanding of being Christ-like in the world and have been discontinued.

Our particular story of the Catholic Church in Aotearoa-New Zealand is precious. It is still young and needs sustained examination to uncover the tales of wonderful achievements and inevitable human frailties. Such stories will continue to be woven into the spiritual genealogy of our ‘communities of saints’ by faith-filled women, children and men.

For those who seek further insights into the fascinating personalities and powerful events that influenced and still shape our Catholic heritage, there is an exciting, six-week course that will trace a ‘History of the Church in Aotearoa-New Zealand’.

Course begins: 17 July 2006

Enrolments: Registrar

Wellington Catholic Education Centre, PO Box 1937, Wellington.