The Dish on the new Bish

I'm posting early this week! Primarily because the news is out… the Hamilton Diocese has a new Bishop.

It actually all makes sense now why we had to wait so long. Our Bishop Elect is Fr Steve Lowe who has been head of formation at Holy Cross Seminary. I'm guessing that we had to wait for Fr Michael Geilen to come back from Rome to take up his post at the Seminary before Fr Lowe could be released to take on the role of Bishop.

I've never met Fr Lowe but, like everyone else, I've been asking around about him over the past 24 hours and trying to figure out what kind of Bishop he will be. So far I've heard vastly differing opinions. I've heard he's a nice guy but not that tough, but then I've also heard that he doesn't suffer fools. I've heard he's loyal to the Church and her traditions but then I've also heard he's sympathetic to liberals. I've heard he's very academic, but then I've also heard he's a very down-to-earth guy and very pastoral.

I guess we will all soon get to meet him and make up our own minds.

From my perspective, if I could choose three qualities I'd like our new Bishop to have they would be servanthood, strong leadership and charisma. Servanthood because I think, as Bishop, it would become all too easy to focus on administration. To become a paper-pusher. I want a Bishop who "lives amongst us" and who is concerned with the same issues we are. Someone who will inspire us all to serve those around us. Strong leadership, I believe, is essential for this Bishop and has been lacking for some time as poor Bishop Browne at 77 years of age journeyed towards retirement. We need someone who will really lead us and our priests, who will make the difficult calls, who will remind the priests that they vowed obediance to the Bishop and who will assert himself as the person who is at the helm of the ship. And charisma because there's nothing better than truly feeling on board with someone. A Bishop who can give amazing homilies, who can make us think about how we are living and how Christ-like our parishes are, a Bishop we can really believe in. 

So, I'm looking for some kind of Pope Francis/Pope John Paul II hybrid. Not a tall order at all.

So, Being Frank community, what do you know about our Bishop Elect? And what three qualities do you think he'll need to lead this Diocese?

Something’s gotta give

Watching our Parish Priest coping on his own this week (our Assistant Priest is away on annual leave) has got me thinking that there has to be a better way.

Our PP looks after two churches (that essentially run like two parishes although we are combined into one pastoral area now), a hospital, three schools, an outlying parish (about 40 minutes drive away), the parish council, finance committee and the Sacramental programme. Place on top of this the demand for funerals, weddings and baptisms, one Mass each weekday (two on Wednesdays) plus four Sunday Masses, daily confessions, then consider all the people who pop in on any particular day just needing "a minute" to discuss some spiritual matter or something they need guidance on. On top of this add all of the demands from the Diocese – the Priests' Council, vocations ministry etc. It is a HUGE and daunting workload. Not only are the hours massive but the very nature of the work must be incredibly draining – visiting the dying, working alongside families to plan funerals, hearing people's confessions, trying to please everyone on the various committees. Something's gotta give.

I'm reminded of a great sermon I heard from Father Gerard Boyce a while back when he suggested that if priests just did what priests are meant to be doing (ie: sacramental things) then this whole Diocese could be run with only ten priests. I don't particularly like the idea of losing touch with the human side of our priests. I remember, for example, when my grandmother died, it was the Deacon who helped plan the funeral, the very elderly priest just turned up on the day and celebrated the Mass and then left afterwards (not attending the wake). It felt a little impersonal – having someone who didn't know us or my grandmother presiding at her funeral, but we really appreciated the input from the Deacon.

I don't know what the answer it but there has to be a better way. We're lucky in my parish that we have a young priest. An older priest just wouldn't cope with this kind of workload. And that's another issue. I look at some of our older priests and just feel sorry for them. Many of them should be retired now – relaxing at home, spending time with other retired priests and reaping the rewards of a life spent in service, rather than rushing about covering two or three different parishes. 

Maybe the answer is, as Fr Gerard suggested, that priests need to step back and focus on "preistly" work – the work that only they can do – hearing confessions, saying Mass, celebrating the Sacraments. And the rest of us have to step up and take on the rest – visiting the sick, managing the finances, giving guidance, running the Sacramental programmes. What do you think?

Upskilling the masses

A couple of years back when I attended Hearts Aflame I was lucky enough to sit through some workshops with Jeremy Palman (now Father Jeremy Palman) on the Theology of the Body. Jeremy obviously knew his stuff and even though parts of his explanation were really theoretical he did an amazing job of bringing these ideas down to our level and explaining the concepts to us in ways that we could grasp. From memory, I attended three hour-long workshops and felt like I had obtained a really good, generalised idea of the Theology of the Body. 

The teachings I picked up from these workshops have remained with me and actually brought to clarity many teachings that I had previously misunderstood or just not understood at all. The basis of them – a respect for life – and the reasons behind this (both scriptural and from Church tradition) have helped me navigate and better make decisions on lots of moral and ethical issues, such as the current euthanasia debate.

I was thinking about how amazing it would be to have Fr Jeremy as your parish priest and how great it would be if everybody could gain some of the insights and teachers I was lucky enough to get.

My question for all of you Being Frank readers is… if you could choose to make all New Zealand Catholics attend a compulsory three-hour lecture series on any topic at all (but you're only allowed one topic) which topic would you choose? What do you think today's Catholics need to be upskilled on most urgently?


Kiwi Reactions to the Synod

I was very interested to read in the current NZ Catholic a variety of views on the Synod on the Family. On page 8 the editors had asked several New Zealanders for their thoughts. I've summarised them below for you…

Steve, a Non-Catholic Christian: has always admired Catholicism's strong, moral teachings and feels the synod put this in grave danger. Feels that valuing and accepting, for example, homosexuality, would be the same as approving of it. Believes that the attitude of some Bishops is ostracising those who have always remained staunchly faithful to what the Church teaches. Hopes that the "clear moral teaching of the Catechism is not revised".

Agnes, parishioner from Avondale: wants the Church to be more open and thinks what the Pope is doing is "excellent". "Times are changing and we should not be so judgemental".

Another parishioner from the Avondale parish: is from a Pasifika culture and is encouraged that the Church is discussing gay issues. Homosexulaity has always been accepted in her culture.

Richard, member of National Catholic Maori Council of NZ: believes the Synod reflected Maori values well in the way it was conducted – reflects the Maori process to "listen, listen, but we see it as all compassionate".  Feels it has garnered a lot of positive press for the Catholic Church. Was touched by the discussion about whanau and that "Pope Francis recognises families are made up of all sorts of different people, and that we need to include all different members of family."

Dorothy, mother, grandmother and writer from Auckland: compared Bishops meeting to discuss family, to lay people meeting to discuss limiting the power of Bishops – believes that Bishops and priests are only "observers" when it comes to family life and so are not truly qualified to make Church decisions about family. Was surprised by how well the Bishops did and encouraged by the way Pope Francis ran things with total transparency and allowing all to speak up and have their say. Believes most remarried and gay Catholics are ignoring the communion ban anyway. Feels annulments are important but should be simplified. Thinks "laypeople, married couples, single parents, the widowed, gay parents and other "family" groups – those involved in raising children – could also be invited to have more input , and dare I say it, voting rights, in the final documents."

Bill and Jenny, Catholic couple married for 43 years: encouraged by the openess of the Synod. Think these issues need careful and considered debate and that it will be difficult for Pope Francis to find a consensus – especially considering the hugely diverse cultural mix of the Catholic Church. Believe that "with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the willingness of the Church to embrace and debate these issues, there is hope that the Catholic Church can find a way to embrace those from all walks of life who seek to walk in the Light of Christ."

Interesting right? And how clever is our Pope that in his closing address he warned against "hostile inflexibility" and "destructive do-goodness". 

Out of all the commenters I'm perhaps most closely aligned with Bill and Jenny. They are right that we need to remember that the Holy Spirit is our guide in all of this. And that it is certainly not an easy thing to do – to unite a Church globally where cultural differences alone are vast before we even think about socio-economic differences, gender etc. But I'm hopeful because at least the conversation has been started. It's got people talking and thinking and questioning and I think that's a great thing. 


Three things have happened this week that have got me thinking about the afterlife. 

Firstly I started reading the new Jodi Picoult book, Leaving Time. It's about a girl whos mother is missing and she has hired a Private Investigator and a psychic to try and find her. The psychic explains that there are two types of spirits in the world. Those who have already crossed over to another place and those who still have some things to work out and haven't quite crossed over yet and, in the story, these are the ones she "contacts". Sounds like the same story most psychics tell.

Then today, by complete coincidence, I happened to be at another school's liturgy which was about All Saints Day (coming up this Saturday). The teacher taking the liturgy explained to the children that there are three kinds of saints – Triumphant Saints (already in heaven with God), Penitant Saints (in purgartory) and Militant Saints (us here on earth). I'm sure you can see the similiarities between what the psychic in the story believes and what we believe as Catholics. With some glaring differences of course. But it made me wonder if this new age way of thinking was actually drawn from our beliefs – was it inspired by the ideas of purgatory and heaven?

Of course the most glaring difference between what psychics believe and what we believe is that psychics believe that not only can we talk to the dead but they they can communicate back to us. They believe in ghosts – spirits trapped on earth. I was talking to my brother about all of this a while ago when we saw a psychic on TV. Being a Pentecostal Christian, he was very clear about what he believes – that anything to do with new age, psychics, spirits, magic etc. is not only bad but actually very dangerous. I asked him how he explained some of the information psychics come out with and he said that he's sure they believe they are talking to their client's loved ones, but how do they know that it's not demons? Scary thought.

The thrid thing that's got me thinking about all of this is Halloween – coming up this week. It's interesting that some churches hold alternate events because of the dark nature of Halloween. If I'm not mistaken though, it was actually a Catholic feast to begin with. Another cross over between new-agers and us.

What exactly does the Catholic Church teach about all of this? Ghosts, spirits, Halloween, psychics? I've certainly never heard a priest preach about it (although I have heard a great sermon on the evils of horoscopes – not in NZ though). I also don't recall any bible stories about this kind of thing – was the idea of ghosts even around back in Jesus' day?

I'll be really interested to hear what you all know and think on this subject.


A moving experience

On Sunday I was privileged to attend the ordination of one of our Seminarians, Danny Fraser-Jones, to the order of Deacons. I had expected all of the rich ceremony and tradition and symbolism but I was totally unprepared for how moving the whole thing was. Four things really moved me.

Firstly, seeing Danny for the first time, walking down the aisle to the song 'Here I Am Lord' with a big smile on his face. He was just radiating joy and pride. I guess when you think that this is the culmination of five years study and the first big step to realising his dreams and ambitions to be a priest it's not surprising he was so full of happiness. Anyone looking at him could have no doubt that this is his calling and that he is happy to be fulfilling it.

Secondly, seeing our elderly Bishop passing his words of wisdom to Danny during his sermon. I know Bishop Denis has his detractors and there are those who dislike his way of doing things, but there was something very moving about seeing a man at the very end of his time of service, a man who must have said thousands of Masses, baptised hundreds of children and served thousands of parishioners ordaining a man who is just at the very beginning of all of that. Quite remarkable really.

The third thing that really moved me – and this is when I was moved to actual tears, was seeing Danny's parents dress him in his deacon's vestments. They put the stole over his shoulder and then lifted the vestments over his head and his mum tidied up the collar and hugged him. It was a poignant reminder that priests come from families who nourish their children's faith and that he will be moving away from his own family into the family of priests. It was a very touching moment.

The last thing that I found really special was when Danny was welcomed with a hug by each of the Deacons in turn. You could see in their faces how happy they were to welcome their new brother.

The whole ceremony was beautiful. I had never attended an ordination before and I found it so interesting listening to Danny's vow of celibacy and his vow of obediance to the Bishop. Really very inspirational because the words of the ceremony really focused on the idea that Danny was being called to serve, not to be served. It wasn't so much bestowing Danny with some kind of "superpowers", it was girding him for a life of service to others. A remarkable thing for someone to commit themselves too.

We were very lucky to have Danny on placement in our parish last year. He is going to make an extraordinary priest. He has the gift of being a very holy man who is also just "one of us" with a down-to-earth attitude and a sense of humour. Which as a friend mentioned to me on Sunday, shows us all that we can aspire to be holy too. I look forward to attending his ordination to priesthood in the future.

Poverty in NZ

This week's post looks away from the Synod, and the inner workings and debates of Church life, to a wider societal issue here in our own nation. There is a seperate post below this one created to continue the Synod debate.

Increasingly articles are being published outlining instances of poverty in New Zealand. These articles generally highlight a family or individual who is "doing it tough" and the feedback/ comments are generally along the lines of "how can this be allowed to happen in our country" etc etc. By my reckoning we started seeing more of these stories appearing post- Christchurch earthquake, and now we seem to be getting them all the time. Certainly I noticed more of these features pre-election which I found uncomfortable – people down on their luck being used as political pawns. 

The issue of poverty is one which should be (and is) of concern to all who call themselves Christians. Last Sunday was Missionary Sunday, and for all the talk of aid and support we give other nations and peoples, it really made me think about what we do for those closer to home. I know there are lots of Catholic agencies and initiatives, many of whom do great work with no media profile or recognition. So this post isn't really about assessing the Church's response to poverty. It is more an opportunity to reflect on two recent news stories which for different reasons I have found challenging.

The first was an article on Wellington's mayor sleeping rough overnight:

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown gave up a basic human right everyone should have – a roof over their head – last night. Instead of being tucked up snug in bed, the mayor and 10 council staff slept in cardboard boxes, on couches and in cars. The sleep-in was to raise awareness and funds for the homeless for World Homeless Day in the Salvation Army's team-based 14 Hours homeless event. While the capital's homeless community was small, they were some of the city's most vulnerable, Wade-Brown said. Every person should have a roof over their head. That's why I'm dossing down for the night to support this fundraiser."

Now, I commend the Mayor for doing something to draw attention to the issue of homelessness. I know in the past Auckland celebs have done similar sleepout type things. I just wonder what the lasting effect of these initiatives is. Does it make any tangible difference apart from "raising awareness?" Or am I just being too cynical?

Secondly, we have gang members feeding school children in Ngaruawahia –

Now on one hand, one man's bread is as good as the next, and it is great to see a social institution such as gangs doing something positive for their community. And for them to have performed this service for 2 1/2 years before getting any media attention, you have to say well done to them for the initiative they've taken and their perseverence to make a positive different in their community.

But without taking anything away from the Tribal Huks, it doesn't sit right, does it? Isn't there something fundamentally wrong about relying on gangs to feed our school kids? I know other organisations who with some funding could expand what they already do to provide the same services as this gang are, but they can't get that governmental support. It seems like our priorities are all wrong when we can pay millions for yacht races, to underwrite movie shoots or to win seats on security councils…but ahead of feeding our own kids? Something is wrong with our priorities there…