Will NZ church changes be evident at the top?


The diversity of the list of new cardinals announced by Pope Francis this month expresses the universality of the Church, an important theme in this pontificate.

The College of Cardinals now has cardinal-electors — aged under 80 and therefore eligible to vote in a conclave — from new nations like Papua New Guinea, Central African Republic and Bangladesh. This is the first time these nations have had a cardinal-elector. Other new cardinal-electors were named from Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil and Mauritius. New cardinals aged over 80 and not eligible to vote in a conclave are from Malaysia and Lesotho.

There were still three new cardinals from the United States and four (with two non-voting) from Europe.

The make-up of the College of Cardinals is changing, as befits the make-up of the modern Catholic Church. The total number of countries represented now stands at 79, with the cardinal-electors who can vote in a conclave now coming from 57 nations.

But, even with the naming of the new cardinals, the strong European flavour of the cardinal-electors is evident at 44.6 per cent of the total.

With the new appointments, 28 per cent of cardinalelectors will come from North or South America, 12.4 per cent from Africa, 11.5 per cent from Asia and 3.3 per cent from Oceania.

Just as the make-up of the College of Cardinals is changing, so the Catholic Church in New Zealand is changing, in line with many western nations.

As Massey University Professor Peter Lineham wrote in the recently published “A Church in Change: New Zealand Catholics take their bearings”, by 2013, 30 per cent of New Zealand’s Catholics were born overseas, up from 22 per cent in 2001.

And many of these newer arrivals are the ones filling the pews on Sundays. The face of the local presbyterate is also changing, with more Asian and Pasifika priests in parishes, albeit with many from religious orders.

But one group that still appears solidly “EuropeanNew Zealander” is New Zealand’s episcopate. Apart from the late Bishop Max Mariu, New Zealand’s Catholic bishops have by and large come from this group. That is not surprising, given the history of the New Zealand Church. (It is a complex area – in our society, many people are of mixed ethnicity so discussions in this area always have an asterisk. For instance, Bishop Patrick Dunn has an ancestor who came from the Cook Islands.)

Across the Tasman, the diversity of the local Church is starting to be seen the episcopacy: Vietnamese Bishop Vincent Long Van Nguyen — previously an auxiliary bishop in Melbourne — was appointed this year to Parramatta. Dioceses of various Eastern Catholic churches are also represented on the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

So it is an interesting discussion point to speculate on when a New Zealand bishop will be appointed who is not of (mainly) European ethnicity, in a way reflecting and acknowledging the emerging reality that is the Catholic Church in this country.

That is not to say that a particular bishop’s ethnicity is necessarily a help or a hindrance to carrying out the episcopal ministry.

But as the years go by, it does start to look a little incongruous that the faces in the pews and the faces under the mitres are of different hues.

In the end, change in this area will probably be inevitable. But, as it is said, the Spirit blows where he will.

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Michael Otto

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