The face of the Church


Unless a reign is short, a Roman Catholic pontiff will appoint most of the men who will vote for his successor.

So started an article on the Pew Research website last November, after Pope Francis named a new group of cardinals.

The article noted that Pope Francis has tilted “the leadership structure of the Roman Catholic Church away from its historic European base and toward developing nations in Africa, Asia and Latin America”.

This is borne out in the figures. As of the end of November, the College of Cardinals had 128 voting members, with 42 per cent from Europe, down from 52 per cent in 2013.

The percentage of voting cardinals from the Asia-Pacific region increased from 9 per cent in 2013 to 15 per cent today. Of Francis’ appointments to the College of Cardinals, 18 per cent have been from the Asia Pacific region.

New Zealand has one current cardinal-elector – Cardinal John Dew – who, even though he is required by canon law to submit his resignation as Archbishop of Wellington to the Pope when he turns 75 in 2023, will still remain eligible to vote in a conclave until May, 2028. (As an aside, it is to be hoped that whenever the next conclave is held, the world will have come through the coronavirus pandemic, please God).

Australia also has one current voting cardinal. However, Cardinal George Pell turns 80 on June 8 this year, meaning he will not be eligible to vote after that date. So, if there are no Australians called to receive the “red hat” before the next conclave, then the participants from this part of the world will come from Papua New Guinea, Tonga and New Zealand. Who would have thought that a generation or two ago?

Oceania would have more “Pacific” faces at a conclave than “European” ones. (Cardinal Pio Taofinu’u from Samoa participated in two conclaves, both in 1978).

It is a fact of history that clerics of (mainly) European heritage have been those called to lead the Church in this country. Up until a generation ago, that reflected the ethnic and cultural identities of most of those in the pews.

It was certainly reflected in the choice of priests to head the national seminary – some of their surnames being Verdon, Morkane, Liston, Rossiter, Courtenay, Mannes, O’Neill, Sanders, Scott, Liddy, Broadbent, Hunt, Daly, Campbell, Handforth, Jeffrey and Ward.

Now a rather different name can be added to the list – Vadakkevettuvazhiyil.

The face of the Church is changing in this country, and it has been for some time now. It is looking less and less like a “European” church – while always being a “Roman” church. The appointment of Fr Mathew Vadakkevettuvazhiyil as rector shows that the effects of this change are percolating upwards in terms of those called to serve as Church leaders.

It is tempting to wonder how long it will take for such change to be reflected in all levels of Church leadership in this country. This has been discussed in this space before, and it is a complex area – many people in New Zealand are of mixed ethnicity and heritage. Bishop Patrick Dunn, for instance, has an ancestor who came from the Cook Islands. The ministry of Bishop Max Takuira Mariu, SM, has not been forgotten.

The ethnicity or heritage of a particular bishop is not necessarily either a help or a hindrance to carrying out their ministry. But when there is a marked difference, in this regard, between Church leadership and those led, and if that situation persists for some time, it means questions are inevitable about the state of the local church. Are we getting enough vocations from our different communities, some of which have been in this country for quite a few years now? If the answer is no, why is that the case? (These are questions that have been posed down the years – New Zealand has often struggled to produce sufficient home-grown priests).

Whatever the answers to such questions, change will likely come in the fullness of time. Quite when that might be, who can say? The Spirit blows where he will.


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Michael Otto

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