Honouring our roots: Why the Church in NZ needs a culture shift

“It is as Maori that the Lord calls you, it is as Maori that you belong to the Church, the one body of Christ.”

These were the words of Pope St John Paul II on his visit to our shores in 1986.

His words were powerful then and are just as powerful now because in an increasingly secular society, these words remind us that we are all called, as we are, to be part of the Church. Indeed, we – Pakeha, Pacific Islander, Maori people and more – are the Church.

And in New Zealand, it was Maori who first heard the call. It is because of this that the Catholic Church in New Zealand has a uniquely Maori foundation.

But in almost 30 years since the great pope reminded us of that, I wonder how many priests, lay ministry and other leaders take what he said into account?

In my own voluntary work in the Church, I regularly have to remind people of this.

Māorifying Mass a cop-out

Sometimes, it is almost a battle as priests or lay leaders push back at attempts to ‘Maorify’ mass, a church event, or a committee. Other times, people have claimed to be ignorant of things Maori and used that as an excuse not to bother.

Well, frankly, that is a cop-out.

I acknowledge and respect efforts, such as the work that has been done on a Maori missal, and even smaller things such as the fact that in many churches across the country mass begins with the sign of the cross in te reo Maori.

But I’ve been to mass many times where, after the initial “Ki te ingoa o te Matua, me te Tamaiti, me te Wairua Tapu” you could be mistaken for thinking you are at mass in Australia or some other predominantly white, English speaking country with a marginalised indigenous population.

Revolution? Or culture shift

I know the bishops are trying to encourage more vocations among Maori, and I acknowledge that Maori have just as much a role to play in that, but without a culture shift in thinking in the Church, Maori will continue to feel like outsiders and they will, as has increasingly been the case over the past decade, go elsewhere (think of the very Maori-friendly Destiny Church, and the bicultural Anglican Church of Aotearoa as examples).

The culture shift need not be a major revolution.

I sense that goodwill is already there among many Catholic leaders across the country. But what is needed is for all Church leaders, ordained and lay, to approach the day to day business of the Church with a different lens. That is, a lens that is not exclusively white.

This shouldn’t be hard if people just thought more about the foundation of the Church in New Zealand.

The roots of the Catholic Church as an institution may well be firmly in some foreign land, where they don’t speak English or Maori, but leaders here should approach their work with the knowledge that the foundation of the Church in this country is quite different to how it looks and feels today.

With open minds and open hearts, this can be changed.

Ordination of Māori deacon brings hope

This is why I was delighted to attend the ordination of my uncle, Danny Karatea-Goddard, who on 7 June was ordained a deacon in Palmerston North.

What could have been a very foreign experience for the 600 or so, mostly Maori, members of the congregation, was actually a very uplifting bilingual and bicultural event.

What this particular service highlighted to me is that with a bit of effort priests and lay leaders, in partnership with the congregation, can make mass a place where Maori feel at home rather than a place that is so foreign, so non-Maori, so white, that it drives them away. In this sense, this article has been written with Pacific and young people in mind too.

The ordination mass in Palmerston North was the result; I’m sure, of hard work by all involved.Yes, you need to have Maori willing to step up just as much as you need priests and lay ministers with an open mind.

The current bishop of Palmerston North, Bishop Charles Drennan, inherited a diocese from one of the strongest supporters of Maori in the Catholic Church.

Bishop Peter Cullinane was widely respected by Maori communities across the diocese he led for 30 years and his successor showed a strong sign of continuing on with that spirit of leadership by making an effort to recite much of the mass in te reo Maori, and, more importantly, give a homily with Maori themes throughout.

A genuine attempt to connect to the congregation, which as a young adult, I feel is something lacking in masses that I attend.

For years I have been discussing with priests the need for them to learn te reo Maori and to make mass more inviting for Maori and young people. For far too long the institutional face and leadership of the Church has been mono-cultural.

In fact, in New Zealand, it has always been white, bar a short period where a mentor of mine, Bishop Max Takuira Mariu, sat on the Bishops’ Conference.

I could also go on about the second-class status of women, but that’s another issue altogether and something that fundamentally needs to be changed from Rome (yes, I’m advocating for women priests — and, while I’m at it, for all priests to be allowed to marry). But those are things for a bigger, longer global campaign.

The main issue I raise in this article is not near as complex and could be addressed with a bit of effort by the leaders at all levels of the Church in NZ.

Why am I hopeful?

What happened in Palmerston North gives me hope.

It does so because the whole experience was based on a different kind of thinking to what we are used to.

Perhaps it is because a Maori lens was used, and while I’m sure it was challenging for the more conservative in the congregation to watch, I believe that this approach is positive and needs to be replicated across the country.

This shift in thinking needs to be prevalent not just for special occasions such as an ordination mass, but in the everyday life of the church.

Such an approach can only be good for all Catholics (not just Maori).

There is a unique story and history in this country that belongs to each of us, and, in many ways shapes our identity. It’s a history we can all be proud of.

But there is also a very practical reason for my call for a culture shift, and if it does not change, the Church will continue to see many Maori (and young people) leaving to go to places they feel more at home.

Honouring its roots will strengthen the Church we have today. And in the times ahead with critical social and environmental challenges before us, a strong Church is needed now more than ever.

Areti Metuamate is a PhD student in Pacific Studies at the Australian National University, Canberra. He is a council member of the Catholic Institute and has served on Te Runanga o te Hahi Katorika ki Aotearoa and the National Committee for World Youth Day.

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