Tikanga Maori needed in NZ Catholic Church

Hemi Ropata, SM, speaks at Te Kupenga-Colin Library’s morning tea

The New Zealand Catholic Church cannot be perfected in grace as a New Zealand Catholic Church unless the deepest elements of Tikanga Maori are incorporated in it.

This was the conclusion reached by Society of Mary third-year seminarian Hemi Ropata in his research project entitled “Deep Calls Unto Deep – The Theological Basis of Inculturation and Its Application to Tikanga Maori”. He presented his research at Te Kupenga-Colin Library’s morning tea in Ponsonby on October 29.

“This research was born out of the realisation that God was present in every time and in every place,” he said. “Where was God present in Maori culture before the missionaries arrived in New Zealand?”

In his research, Mr Ropata applied the linguistical concept of “deep structure” to inculturation.  Deep structure is the deeper element that gives a sentence meaning beyond grammatical correctness.

Inculturation, he said, is the effect and result of two cultures meeting with a “deep structure contact” and “through the operative lens of faith”.

He said that Jesus incarnated had to assume “a race and a country in time” and was enculturated in the Jewish tradition. However, at his Resurrection, Jesus transcended his humanity and took on all cultures.

“The incarnation is particularly enculturative, and the Resurrection is universally inculturative. Jesus transcends cultures,” he said. “We ask: can cultures do the same thing? And the answer is, it’s not only possible, but necessary for salvation.”

Mr Ropata said cultures have to transcend themselves “in the light and purification of the cross”.

“The cross purifies anything that’s not of God. So, all the things that are not of Gospel value are removed by Christ’s passion,” he said.

Mr Ropata also examined St Thomas Aquinas’ view that “grace perfects nature”. “There’s an inherent relationship between human nature and culture. So, what we can say grace builds on culture and grace builds on nature and brings it to perfection,” he said.

Inculturation, Mr Ropata argued, is not only missiological or a tool for evangelisation.

“Because culture is constituted to the person, it is also constituted to a particular church, in this case the New Zealand Church. Inculturation is not only missiological, but it’s ecclesiological. It’s what constitutes us a New Zealand Church,” he said.

“The New Zealand Church can’t be perfected in grace as a New Zealand Church until it becomes truly a New Zealand Church, and that requires it to be Maori. The Church has to have a Maori face and the Church has to have a Catholic face in order for us to grow in God’s grace,” he added.

He said that, when Bishop Jean Baptiste Pompallier presented the Maori people with the canvass of the True Vine that traced the Church’s origins from Jesus to St Peter to the last pope of that time, it made sense to Maori.

“It talks about Church history and it talks about Church genealogy. But it’s also the whakapapa of the Church,” he said, explaining that whakapapa, an act of producing and reciting genealogy, is “a comprehensive conceptual framework that allows Maori to make sense of the world”.

As the Maori people was “spiritually related to Bishop Pompallier”, this became their whakapapa, too.

“We have here most profound Maori ideas expressed in purely Catholic terms. And the opposite is also true. We have Christian ideas expressed in Maori terms,” Mr Ropata said.

However, he said that the deep structure inculturation has not developed far enough. He cited the Kyrie Eleison translation in the Maori Miha (Mass), “E te Ariki, tohungia matou, E te Karaiti, tohungia matou, E te Ariki tohungia matou”, which translates to “Lord, guide us, Christ guide us, Lord guide us”.

“Rather than calling upon Christ’s salvific mercy, we just call on his guidance. Perhaps we can find mercy ourselves, we can find salvation ourselves. So, it’s bad inculturation. It’s bad theology,” he said. “Should we change it? I don’t know. Never underestimate the power and importance of ritual. Remember, rituals are meaning-making. As generations of Maori in New Zealand have prayed this kyrie in the Miha, it kind of creates it’s own new meaning. To just throw that out comes with a very great cost. I don’t know what the answer to this is. But we do have to be careful about what we do about translations going forward.”

To achieve a truly New Zealand Church, he said, “we have to begin with good and rigorous academia”.

“Theory precedes practice. We must take what we learn and we need to apply it. But first we need to learn. And then it has to be taken up by all the faithful,” he said.

Mr Ropata acknowledged that “our Church in New Zealand is not what it was a generation ago. It’s now very Filipino, very Indian. It now has all these other international cultures and flavours coming into it. And that’s a beautiful thing.

“But New Zealand is Maori and New Zealand is Pakeha. We need to acknowledge that. And our Church needs to acknowledge that.”

He said that inculturation of Maori in the Church “can be done in a way that doesn’t diminish these other cultures” and “doesn’t restrict the cultural expression of their faith”.

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Rowena Orejana

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