Bishop Dunn looks back – and forward


The Church of the future might be very different from the Church of today, but it will still be the same Church.

Auckland Bishop Patrick James Dunn, who celebrated the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination on July 25, made this observation in an interview with NZ Catholic at his office in the Pompallier Diocesan Centre.

His desk was laden with documents, a statement on the amount of work he does, and plaques of appreciation from different parishes and communities rest on top of the cabinets. A photo of Pope Francis is on the wall. Outside the large, north-facing, floor-to-ceiling windows, beyond the houses across the street, there is a view of the Waitemata Harbour.

He has seen a lot of changes, both in the diocese and the region.

“I think the changes were gradual, but when you look back, they’ve been very significant. One example that occurs to me, just in terms of growth, is Sancta Maria College in Flat Bush. I can remember when we bought the farm.

“I remember saying to Reuben O’Neill, who was on the [diocesan] administration board, ‘can’t you find a place that’s closer to Howick for the school?’ He said there was nothing else available,” Bishop Dunn recalled with a laugh. “I said, ‘gosh, this is really on the edge’, yet now it is surrounded by massive housing developments.”

With the influx of migrants came the growth of Asian communities.

Anecdotally, he said he was surprised to find that Indian priests have now outnumbered Filipino priests in Auckland.

“These communities were quite small then. But now, they are so significant in the life of our parishes,” he said. “The number of Filipino and Indian priests, too, has become quite a significant feature of the Church in the Auckland diocese.”

Whether from Asia, South Africa or another part of the world, Bishop Dunn said migrants have been a real blessing.

“They’ve brought a very strong deep Catholic faith to the life of the diocese,”
he said.

Stormy weather

Bishop Dunn said some people have asked him what it was like to have been appointed bishop by a saint. He was appointed bishop by St John Paul II in 1994.

“[I always say] Pray for me. You (Pope John Paul II) are responsible,” he said with amusement.

Bishop Dunn recalled when he was first told of his appointment as auxiliary bishop, he was very hesitant to accept the position.

“I felt there were other priests who would be better qualified and who were older, too,” he said. He was only 44 years old at the time of his appointment.

His predecessor, Bishop Denis Browne, told him that the then-Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Thomas White, was trying to reach him (Bishop Dunn) by phone. “Bishop Denis said the only answer you can give is ‘yes’,” Bishop Dunn recalled.

Bishop Dunn met with Archbishop White the following week in Wellington.

“Archbishop White said I had to trust that this was what was being asked of me. And I said, ‘I was always brought up to say ‘yes’ to the Pope, but was he sure this was the right decision?’,” Bishop Dunn said.

In the July of that year, he was ordained (bishop) on a very stormy night.

“Just before the ceremony started, the power or the fuse box blew. We were in darkness. There were some electricians in the congregation, so they were trying to get things sorted out,” he laughed. “Then, the lights were gradually restored. A miracle!”

The bigger shock, he said, was when he was asked to take over as Bishop of Auckland barely six months later. Hamilton Bishop Edward Gaines passed away and Bishop Browne was appointed to replace him (Bishop Gaines).


The Kiwi drift, a term Bishop Dunn coined, is his biggest disappointment.

“That is so pervasive. I see it in my own family. Priests talk about it in their families. We’re conscious that it’s in every family. That is sort of an anguish really. What happened? What can we do? How can we respond?” he said.

“I suppose it is a cross seeing quite a number of my nephews and nieces not having any strong connection with the Church, when I consider the strong faith that my parents had. I do have nephews and nieces who are very committed and very involved, but that would be in the minority.”

From left to right: Martin Dunn (brother), Sue Dunn (sister-in-law), Rachel Batchelor (niece), Bishop Patrick Dunn, Christopher Dunn (brother) and John Dunn (brother).

He said this problem is faced by families of all ethnicities.

“Parents are worried about their children just growing up in what is in some ways a very secular society. I remember reading a column by Ronald Rolheiser who spoke about how contemporary secular society has been the most powerful narcotic that has been released, giving people the sense that they can live without God,” he reflected.

Another disappointment, he said, was that “we still are not recruiting a sufficient number of priestly vocations from the local church”.


“Many aspects of my life as a bishop bring me deep joy, but what touches
me deeply, almost week by week, is the deep faith that I find in the people in every parish. I find the faithfulness of the people really is a constant inspiration to us (priests). It keeps us on track .”

Auckland Bishop Patrick Dunn

But ever the optimist, Bishop Dunn is encouraged by the innate spirituality of the people of the many cultures in Auckland, and at how often a gathering will start with a prayer.

“I think there’s a certain isolation with being bishop that you’re no longer simply one of the priests. The flipside of the coin is that the support of the other bishops has been amazing,” he said. “We talk shop, but there’s a friendship, too.”

Bishop Dunn also spoke of his deep appreciation for his brother bishops.

From left to right :Wellington Cardinal John Dew, Cardinal Thomas Williams, Hamilton Bishop Stephen Lowe, Dunedin Emeritus Bishop Colin Campbell, Bishop Michael Dooley and Christchurch Emeritus Bishop Basil Meeking

Bishop Dunn also finds joy in the support of priests and people. He said a woman told him how her daughter discussed his homily with the family when she (daughter) came home from school.

“People will often make little comments that are very reassuring. They are little things in a way, but they are probably the more important things,” he said.

“Many aspects of my life as a bishop bring me deep joy, but what touches me deeply, almost week by week, is the deep faith that I find in the people in every parish. I find the faithfulness of the people really is a constant inspiration to us (priests). It keeps us on track,” he said.


A few years ago, Bishop Dunn was heavily criticised for his stance on the issue of gays and lesbians and the Church.

He said he can’t see the Church supporting same-sex marriages, but added there is nothing wrong in reaching out to them with friendship.

“I keep thinking: what would Jesus do? I think he was often under attack for enjoying the company of people along the margins, the tax collectors and sinners. There’s nothing wrong with the act of simple friendship. I don’t think we have to preach to people all the time. Why not start with a simple friendship and let them know that we love them?” he said.

“I quite like the approach of Pope Francis. I don’t know the scars or the wounds that people bear. But the Church is the house of the Father and we need to be welcoming.”

Future Church

To the youth, he said, this is an amazing time to be a young person in the Church.

“It’s exciting and challenging and people with a sense of adventure will find this moment very appealing,” he said.

Bishop Patrick Dunn hands out awards at the Catholic Caring Foundation Mass.

“I do feel that the future is in God’s hands. I think that the Church of the future might be different from the Church that we know, but it will be the same Church,” he said.

He said lay people will have a greater role in parish life.

“But . . . we also need to keep remembering that the key mission for lay people is in society: to be witnesses to Christ in every field of human endeavour. The first responsibility of lay people is not in the Church, but in the world,” he said.

Rowena Orejana

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