Cardinal Williams – ‘most unassuming prince of the church’

The Vatican reporter for the American independent weekly, National Catholic Reporter, John Allen Jnr, interviewed Cardinal Tom Williams last month for his newspaper. Amid remarks about New Zealand being imbued with the Anglo-Saxon work ethic fused with a

Despite his modest style, Cardinal Williams is nobody’s fool. He has thought long and hard over a quarter-century about the distinctive contribution of Catholicism in Oceania, by which Williams has in mind not just people like himself, but also indigenous populations such as New Zealand’s Māori, as well as the cultures of Samoa, the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Tonga and Fiji. All this makes Williams a passionate advocate for his local church, which has sometimes meant defending it when he believes Rome hasn’t sufficiently grasped its challenges and its promise.

On the other hand, Williams also sees a dark side to the affluent, secularised society of today’s New Zealand. In a now-famous June 2004 essay, Williams wrote, ‘We have rejected the moral sustenance of the past, and are attempting to live on junk food provided by a bankrupt liberalism’. He warned that while today’s barbarians ‘may be soberly suited and stylishly presented’, their impact is still ruin.

I was in New Zealand for a lecture, and I sat down with Williams the next day for a wide-ranging interview about his role in last spring’s conclave, his assessment of the new pope, and his views on what Oceania has to teach the church. What follows are excerpts.

NCR: Let’s talk about the conclave that elected Benedict XVI. You’ve said there was no lobbying among the cardinals?

Cardinal Thomas Williams: There were no blocs or lobbying, and no tone of ‘don’t vote for x’. Coming in, I didn’t know what to expect. I suppose I thought that my vote is as good as anyone else’s, even if I am a country yokel, so if there is a question of garnering votes, I thought, well, mine is as valuable as anyone else’s. Yet I would say that the warning against lobbying really was observed.

How did the politics unfold, in your experience?

We were encouraged to discuss things with one another outside the General Congregation meetings, over meals, coffee, and gatherings of small groups. I was present at only one such meeting, which included 16 [English-speaking] cardinals. There was no discussion of the merits and demerits of a given candidate, but it was in the spirit of ‘You know so-and-so, what can you tell me?’ It was held at the Irish College, and there was a great spirit of fraternity. It began with a very good meal, which was formally hosted by Cardinal Desmond Connell of Dublin, though the meal was actually prepared by the staff at the Irish College.

How could the process be improved?

We [cardinals] need to find ways to get to know each other better. [At the time there were some 45 cardinals in the college who had been appointed only in the previous four years]. For example, I was staying with the Marists in Rome and saw an insert in La Croix that had pictures of all the cardinals, with their ages and nationalities. I took it with me to the General Congregation meetings, and whenever somebody would speak, I’d pull out the sheet and identify them. Before long, a number of other cardinals would come over to ask, ‘Who’s that speaking?’

Why do you think Ratzinger was elected?

He was the best known member of the College of Cardinals, and it was clear that those who knew him best respected and admired him most. His writings were well disseminated. … Then there was his leadership in the General Congregation meetings. He was patient, yet quite decisive. … His homilies were also admirable. Finally, I think he represented what I called the need for a ‘bilingual pope’. By that I meant someone who could speak the language of the faithful, the language of Scripture, tradition, the Fathers, and so on, but who could also speak the language of the modern Barbarians. I felt Ratzinger had this ability. He could engage the secular world on its own terms. He would be not just a religious leader, but a world leader.

You’ve been passionate about the need for inculturation. Why?

To take a negative example, the evangelisation of the Māori has been largely ineffective because of the lack of inculturation. The missionaries were French, and they brought the Roman rite celebrated in Latin. For the Māori, once something becomes a tradition, it is very difficult to change. … Many are now trapped in a 19th century mould. Among the Māori, there isn’t the degree of religious practice, as well as theological and liturgical sophistication, that we would want. …On the other hand, the Samoans give us a very positive example. The late Samoan Cardinal Pio Taofinu’u related a Samoan ceremony called the ‘ava [kava] to the Eucharist. The ‘ava is the root of a pepper tree, which is ceremonially pounded and strained to make a drink. It’s an elaborate ceremony. Those preparing the drink are guarded by warriors while they perform the rites. Cardinal Taofinu’u said the Eucharist is the ‘ava par excellence, and so during the Eucharistic Prayer chiefs guarded the altar. There are also parallels with the symbolism of the Eucharist. The ‘ava is always served only from one cup, and it’s taken to the people as a sign of unity. Cardinal Taofinu’u’s book was called The ‘Ava Ceremony is a Prophecy. … When I was a parish priest in Samoa we developed an inculturated liturgy based on the cardinal’s book. When we celebrated this liturgy for the first time in the parish, an elderly chief came up to me and said, ‘This is the first time I’ve ever been to Mass that I felt like I was Samoan.’ The Samoans have brought that kind of liturgy to New Zealand.

You’ve also been outspoken in defence of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, and the need for flexibility in liturgical translation. Do you see this as an issue of inculturation?

It has to be. There is no one English language. If anyone believes that English is a homogenous language, then why does the Oxford University Press print a separate Australian and a New Zealand English dictionary in addition to its standard editions? In New Zealand, it’s estimated that we use up to 300 Māori words. How can anyone think our English is the same as everyone else’s? …. It’s a matter of competence and trust. Translations should be within the competence of episcopal conferences working singly or collegially. The role of the Holy See is to assist in the area of doctrinal integrity. To say that we know your language better than you do is to betray a distrust that goes beyond the competence of the Holy See.

At the Synod for Oceania in 1998, there was much talk about the subject of celibacy. Where do things stand?

In the end, it was clear that the ordination of the viri probati was not going to get majority support in the form of a proposition, in part because of the views of some of the bishops from the Curia. In the end, the decision was to live to battle in another arena on another day. Some felt, ‘How bad do things have to get before we can get people to listen?’ Some bishops are very concerned. They have to send consecrated hosts in quantity in biscuit tins with pilots on island-hopping planes, or with the skippers of fishing boats, to be handed over to catechists, in order to be sure that people have the Eucharist. This is happening in Papua New Guinea, in the Solomon Islands, in other Pacific Islands. These places would be isolated without their airstrips. In New Guinea, some missionaries have to trek for three days to reach their communities.

In 2001, you predicted that the sexual abuse crisis in New Zealand would not be as bad as in the United States. Has that proved true?

The incidents here have certainly been serious enough, but I think they’re less. We acted early in setting up diocesan professional standard groups. We set up a national office to oversee the programme, headed by the former head of the national police. We didn’t go in for cover-ups. We’ve tried to use the best psychiatric assistance available. Also, things have been less dramatic here because New Zealand is a less litigious society. In this country, we have an Accident Compensation Corporation into which companies and institutions pay a premium, and then it pays settlements when people get hurt. The church pays premiums for every priest and sister, and then the fund pays grants to victims where charges come forward.