The View from the Lectern
I try to say yes to new opportunities whenever I can, especially when it comes to the Church. My reasoning is that I am safe as long as I’m putting myself in God’s hands, and I always have an ear to Mary’s yes. Also, yes can be fun. Scary, but fun.
So, when I received an email asking me to co-MC the National Assembly of Priests, and perhaps present to them about the CEC, I replied yes. However, the anxiety the prospect induced was screaming no! It would mean public speaking to an audience of expert public speakers, including most of the Bishops.
They were an audience who knew each other well, and who may not warm to an outsider, especially a woman, coming along and intruding upon their conference. In other words, a tough crowd.
I need not have worried, of course. Our priests are some of the nicest men you could possibly meet. They were uniformly welcoming and kind, as you would want priests to be. They have sacrificed much for their vocation and are living fascinating lives. Talking with them was so easy and interesting – the stories!
There were only four other women present at the conference, so it felt strange to be in such a male environment. But what a privilege; I was having a glimpse into a world that isn’t usually open to a female eye. This hit me most when they sang together. It was beautiful, the purity of all these male voice harmonising – they made a heavenly sound, and I felt the Spirit keenly.
The activities the priests enjoyed were frankly hilarious. Of course many opted for golf or a free afternoon, but there was also ziplining. And yes, Bishop Colin Campbell did the ziplining. I came across some of the men descending from a Duck boat excursion. They looked like they were having a grand time. They could also go on the Gondola or walk through volcanic landscapes, as Rotorua has so many great attractions and activities on offer. The real treat was to see them having fun together and relaxing.
The afternoons were my downtime, and I spent them walking and having a look around Rotorua, or sitting with one of the priests with a pot of tea or a coffee and just talking. The stories they shared were treasures, gifts that I could take home with me. There are some I will turn into short stories sooner or later. Priests are sent all over the world, some to volatile places, and they have adventures as they serve their congregations.
Archbishop Mark Coleridge from Australia was the Keynote Speaker, and he spoke eloquently about the changes and the challenges of the Catholic Church today. These ranged from the diminishing number of priests, the abuse crisis and the effects of diminishing congregations. (For more details, please visit the following page. Catholic priests told to fasten seatbelts for journey of change - New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference)
For me, it was a valuable insight into what is concerning the clergy at the moment, and it is exactly what also concerns me as a member of a parish, and as a Catholic mother. Archbishop Mark talked about how ‘corrosive’ the abuse scandals have been, and I could relate to this. We have a beautiful Church, and we are all enraged, saddened and disgusted at the abuse suffered at the hands of a few. The conversation I witnessed at the conference very clearly showed that our priests feel the same, if not more so.
Other speakers included Fr Craig Butler, Fr Sherwin Lapaan and Fr Vui Hoang. Speaking about Parish renewal, Bishop John Adams talked about his previous parish in Rangiora, where the laity had been invited to support the priest in a more involved way than is often the case. It made me ponder how we can all support our priests better in our own parishes.
On the final day, we heard from Hannah and James Van Schie, who talked about their lives as a Catholic couple. Finishing the talks was Lucienne Hensel and Dr Therese Lautua, who spoke about the Synod. Lucienne recreated the style of conversation they were having in Rome while we were in Rotorua, and the priests really enjoyed those conversations, calling them enlightening and empowering.
Seeing the way the priests celebrated mass together was also fascinating. They all wore their vestments to attend Mass, and nearly 200 priests stretched out their hands during the Eucharistic prayers. They helped themselves to the host by passing the Ciborium (small bowl that contains the host) along the rows. The local worshippers were in awe of the sight of most of New Zealand’s priests all together in one church, as was I.
The week went by all too quickly and I feel I made many new friends. It made my heart sing to spend time with these wonderful, spiritual men. Our Church in Aotearoa New Zealand is in very good hands.