Over 4000 years of priestly ministry were represented in Blenheim last month when 170 clergy from the six New Zealand Catholic dioceses came together for a four-day assembly.
Several generations of priesthood were represented—from Fr Mark Field (Hamilton), ordained just five weeks, to Fr Bill Corcoran (Palmerston North), a priest for 58 years—with great differences in personality and experience. But there was a wonderful sense of togetherness and a tangible feeling brotherhood. ‘A joy to be there’ was one comment.
Sponsored by the Bishops Conference, the April 14-18 assembly was promoted as an opportunity ‘to reflect, to be challenged and nourished, to sleep and to enjoy good company’. The opportunity was well taken.
Fr David Ranson, a priest of the Australian diocese of Broken Bay and senior lecturer in spirituality at the Sydney College of Divinity, provided intellectual input with meditations on priestly life in today’s social and religious climate.
Under the general title of ‘The Pastoral Paradox’, Fr David challenged and encouraged, moved and inspired, reminding us that ‘the priest is the one who lives with a divided heart and who is alive to the pain of that division’. That makes the priest ‘a person of intersection’—a meeting point for his people at their most critical moments and a person at the cutting edge of change.
Using Chapter 21 of John’s Gospel, he developed the theme from the starting point of the disciples who ‘went and caught nothing that night’ to their recognition of Jesus standing on the shore, offering them breakfast. The recognition came out of their darkest time. God begins to stir life anew in the place where we feel lost, alone or the least confident.
We should not mourn or try to re-live the past (‘the village experience of pastoring is over’) but should be willing to consider an ‘imaginative risk’ which will show itself as we listen and dialogue. The ‘reverence of listening’ leads to conversation which is the surest sign of a living community. Our love for those we are sent to serve is a crucial component in any pastoral venture.
Participants variously described the talks as ‘mind-stretching’, ‘hope-filled’, ‘much to chew on’, giving us ‘new wine skins’.
The People of God from North Cape to Bluff were represented by their priests at this unique assembly. One priest summed it up:
‘It was a strange feeling. It was good to be together; there was a sense of belonging with each other. But it was also good to leave—we also belong to our people.’ (see photos opposite)