Quiet celebration for 40 years as a Bishop

Bishop Peter Cullinane

The 40th episcopal jubilee of Palmerston North Emeritus Bishop Peter Cullinane, a milestone in every sense, was celebrated quietly under level 4 lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic.

On April 23, 40 years ago, Bishop Cullinane became the first bishop of the newly created diocese.

“How did I celebrate under lockdown?  – Jesus and I did it quietly together; we are hoping to celebrate with others later. He is in my bubble”, Bishop Cullinane told NZ Catholic.

The diocese is still looking at celebrating his anniversary, hopefully after the lockdown is lifted.

“Monsignor Brian Walsh had suggested I lead the Mass on Pentecost Sunday, which is the diocese’s feast day. Let’s hope that can still happen,” he said.

Looking back on his appointment, Bishop Cullinane said he felt “anxious, but [I] also saw it as an opportunity to do some of the things I felt needed to be done”.

Bishop Cullinane was on the staff of the Pastoral Centre in Palmerston North in the 1970s, and was in touch with people from all over New Zealand who wanted the renewal introduced by the Second Vatican Council.

“We provided a wide range of courses – Scripture, liturgy, catechetics, social justice, etc. for laity, religious and priests. The enthusiasm of people committed to renewal, and the heartbreaks of those who experienced opposition to it, highlighted for me the need for ongoing adult formation at all levels.  This became a priority in my ministry as bishop,” he said.

At the start, there were no diocesan structures. “My first office was a small kitchenette at the Pastoral Centre,” he recalled. He said the “process of disengagement” (from Wellington archdiocese) was worked out by competent people from both dioceses and “the very fair-minded contribution of Cardinal Tom Williams”.

It fell to Bishop Cullinane to create a logo. “It was the Easter season when the diocese came into being, and so I chose a logo that featured the contours of the diocese, with Ruapehu at the top from where the Risen Christ speaks – kia tau te rangimarie ki a koutou. The bottom boundary is not shown, out of respect to the local iwi, who had felt cut across the middle by where the boundary was placed.

The only personal touch in the logo is the reference to Hebrews 5:7-9, Bishop Cullinane said. “Some time later, I was rebuked by the Heraldic Society for not conforming to traditional coats of arms; I haven’t slept since!” he added.

Bishop Cullinane said the main assets of the diocese were its people, religious and priests.

“Programmes of formation for lay ministries (Hand On and Waka Aroha) were important developments. So too was the appointment of lay women and men to important diocesan leadership positions, including finance and Catholic education. Eventually we appointed lay pastoral coordinators to lead some parishes rather than amalgamate them,” he said.

Instead of one Diocesan Pastoral Council, they established five Pastoral Deanery Councils “which were open to the participation of a much wider representation of the people of the diocese”. He met with each council three times a year initially, then dropping down to two.

“The main limitation was that we were not used to working together on this scale. But it seemed consistent with the reason for creating the diocese in the first place: to bring people, priests and bishop into closer, more frequent, contact. It was that way of working together that Pope Francis is encouraging – a synodal journeying together, listening at grassroots, and sharing responsibility. The only way to get used to it was to do it,” he said.

Maori Mission

A bigger challenge for Bishop Cullinane was enabling the full participation of Catholic Maori in the Church. “The traditional ‘Maori Mission’ ran alongside the parishes in parallel. It gave Maori a strong sense of belonging in the Church, and we are permanently indebted to the priests, sisters and brothers who made this possible,” he said.

But there were several weaknesses, he added. For one, it was dependent on religious orders, who gradually had fewer personnel to provide, until they eventually withdrew. Also “Maori did not feel ‘at home’ in parish liturgies, programmes and apostolates. The challenge was to help Maori feel their place in the Church was not on the margins, while ensuring they could continue to experience their own ways of gathering,” he said.

Bishop Cullinane responded to this challenge by establishing a Maori Apostolate Coordinating Board.

“The appointment of Koro Danny Karatea Goddard as my vicar for Maori was a milestone. So too was the ordination of Maori priests: Steve Hancy ordained on his home marae at Raupunga in 1988; and two widowers, Pehi Waretini on the Maungarongo marae in 1992, and Tamati Manaena on the Waitapu marae in 1998,” he said.


Bishop Cullinane said the integration of Catholic schools into the state system almost saw the closing down of some schools.

“Integration into the state system was conditional upon our schools being brought up to the material standard of the state schools. But the cost of doing this was beyond our means, and we were literally faced with having to decide which schools to keep and which to close, if we could not integrate them all,” he said. Fortunately, Government suspensory loans enabled the schools to integrate.

“There was no let-out earlier, however, when, in the very first days of the diocese, I was told by the then-chancellor of the archdiocese that I would need to halt a collection already in progress in Hawkes Bay for the building of a new co-ed school, or face long-term, crippling indebtedness. It was a very upsetting time for us all,” he said.


Bishop Cullinane said he is loving the slower pace of retirement. “In a letter recognising my 32 years of leading the diocese, the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples spoke of a continuing apostolate of prayer and sacrifice. I really do find this is how I can continue to contribute. I am also very happy to be involved in parish ministry where and when required; at times more re-cycled than retired,” he said.

He said the title “emeritus” seems a bit prestigious, “but my Latin dictionary brings it down to earth: veteran, old, disused.”

From the outset, the Acts of the Apostles was the diocese’s “mission statement” and, at one of the bishops’ synods, he spoke of reimaging the Church as the community of Jesus’ disciples. “In both these ways I see the Church ‘moving into the future with its eyes on where it is coming from’:  ka titiro whakamuri kia anga whakamua. I think this is how the Church will find itself.”

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Rowena Orejana

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