Bishop John Cunneen DD RIP

Nov 18, 2010

Below find the homily delivered by Bishop Basil Meeking at the Funeral Mass for Bishop John Cunneen.

Over 78 years ago John Jerome Cunneen was baptised, in the old church, in this parish of St Mary, North Christchurch. Now he has completed his earthly pilgrimage. So we gather for his Requiem Mass, our Bishop Barry Jones, his fellow bishops of New Zealand, his family, the priests, religious and faithful of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch and many others who have known and loved him and whose lives he has touched and blessed in significant ways.

The life of Bishop John Cunneen was all of a piece. He was a man of the Church firmly, wholeheartedly; he was always comfortable with that, no matter whose company he was in. When he was only 14 years old he went to Holy Name, the national minor seminary just when it opened here in Christchurch and so began his path to the priesthood.. His whole life from then on was given to the Catholic Church, yet in a quite remarkable degree, wherever he was, he was part of the human community too . He had a deep feeling for Canterbury and for the institutions and lives of the people of the province. He was one of those persons of whom you could say, “Nothing human was foreign to him,” This was in no way contradicted by the fact that first and foremost he was a Catholic priest. He was quite without any kind of personal or ideological agenda; he was a man with no concern for possessing money or material goods; he simply found in the priestly ministry his raison d’etre and his way of living the Gospel of Jesus Christ .

As I look back over the 65 years that John Cunneen and I have been friends, one phrase comes to mind that encapsulates the essential thrust of his life. It consists of only two words which were used by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s when speaking of the priestly ministry.

From the outset and at every stage in his life Bishop Cunneen was a man of unwavering “pastoral charity”. Pastoral charity – before the Second Vatican Council we used call it zeal. “A good priest is a zealous priest”, we would say. That remains true. A priest should be zealous for the salvation of the world. But the reinterpretation of zeal as pastoral charity is an advance in understanding of the attitude and the habits a priest needs in order to carry out his ministry. Pastoral charity indicates not only zeal for the salvation of the world but love for the world. It does not mean adopting the standards of the world or being taken in by the world. It is just that you can’t really evangelise someone you don’t love. You can’t speak of evangelising a culture unless you are able to take part in it and can show that you love it. Only someone whose life is marked by love has the ability to reveal the self giving of God the Father in a redemptive love for the world. Pastoral charity is not some general kind of love; it is always love for persons, particular persons made in God’s image. If a priest is truly pastoral it means he never offers his own kind of salvation for people; it means rather that he brings the one God in three Persons to his people and that he is prepared to sacrifice himself in doing so.

The kind of availability for people that is integral to pastoral charity is a self discipline, often a form of penance for the priest. It is the availability that we see in Jesus in the Gospels. His mission on earth Jesus said, was to reveal his Father. That is the mission of the priest, to reveal the Father as the source of all life. The priest is a sacramental sign of Jesus Christ and therefore one who reveals the Father as absolute life-giving love that heals people and transforms them and draws them even to share in the very life of God. Therefore the priest, in revealing God as Father himself shares in a true spiritual fatherhood; he is rightly called “Father”. If the priest is to be effective and at ease in his priestly ministry he must have an increasingly clear sense of himself as a father. It is not a function, not something one does; it is a relationship with God into which the priest brings those he serves and cares for, a relationship that permeates everything, including his free time. This is the pastoral charity that impels a priest to live in the midst of God’s people so as to direct their path and nourish their hope.

In all of this I am describing Father Cunneen, Bishop Cunneen during all his 54 years of priesthood. This is what he became through the sacrament of Holy Orders when he was ordained a priest in Holy Name Church in Ashburton in 1956; this is what he became even more intensely when he was ordained a bishop in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament in 1992. The holy gifts he received in ordination flourished and bore fruit abundantly in his life not least because he had also notable natural gifts of temperament and character which brought him close to people. A friend to whom I had once introduced him writes from the USA after his death: “I had been impressed by his ability to relate to people immediately He acted as if he had know me for years.” Part of it was his sweet and placid disposition and a real gentleness; I never saw him really angry. He carried optimism almost to a fault; he was the embodiment of those words of the English mystic, Julian of Norwich: “All things shall be well; all manner of things shall be well . “

He was never a man of theory; his clear, wholehearted commitment to social justice, to the relief of human need, to human development was not in the abstract; he simply got on with the job when he saw a person in need. When he came across someone who could not cope with life. I remember once, many years ago, noticing how a team of people funded by the diocese to deal with a certain social situation held meetings and talked a lot while Father Cunneen who was not part of the team was dealing quietly, effectively, with those in need whom the team had been formed to serve; they were beating a path to his door.

A full list of the people with whom he was actively involved cannot be given here; principally there were the Samoan communities in Christchurch to whom he was chaplain and father and friend while there was no Samoan priest in the diocese and whom he continued to cherish and support after we did have Father Paolo from Samoa and after he himself had become the diocesan bishop. Then there were all the young people with whom he could communicate so easily ; they found in him a sympathetic, fatherly figure who understood and cared for them; perhaps some of you here today came to know him at 6A in those Sunday socials in the Xavier College Hall which he organised in the 1960s. For prisoners he was a friend and advocate, someone endlessly ready to listen to them and to give them practical help. Always the Maori people knew they had a friend in Pa Cunneen, one who would share with them not only his time but his possessions too.

All of that was highly personal and it gave him a certain image, yet he always remained solidly based in a parish; he was essentially a hardworking parish priest and he gave of his best in every parish where he served; He met and visited with so many of you who are here today’ in a parish; there he did your baptisms, your First Communions, your weddings and buried your dead. Father Cunneen served as assistant priest in St Joseph’s, North Timaru, in St Paul’s Dallington, at the Cathedral,; then as parish priest in the Chatham Island, after that back as administrator of the Cathedral parish,, then to Sacred Heart Addington, to Rangiora, to Bishopdale and finally Christ the King, Burnside., until in 1990 he became my pastoral assistant, that meant really acting as a kind of unofficial auxiliary bishop; then in 1992 the Holy See agreed to his appointment as auxiliary bishop in Christchurch and I had the joy of consecrating him on St Andrew’s Day that year. Then when I retired in 1996 John Jerome Cunneen was appointed 8th Bishop of Christchurch.

Once in charge of the diocese his impulse was to act as parish priest of the whole diocese and though that may have had some drawbacks, his abundant pastoral charity was lavished on people more widely than ever.

In all situations the considerable pastoral skills he had acquired were to the fore. Especially was he a friend to the priests and always felt close to them and sought their company; they appreciated his first hand experience of their tasks and the problems they faced. He gave encouragement to religious men and women as far as possible in their changing and often difficult situations. In particular, the supportive prayers of the Carmelite sisters, their loyalty to the Church and the friendship and encouragement they give to priests led him to act as their chaplain, celebrating their daily Masses for a number of years until his health gave out. Bishop Cunneen gave his full support to the Catholic schools and the Catholic education system which he continued to keep firmly on a diocesan basis. In the administration of the diocese itself he was blessed with good co-operators and prudently followed the financial and administrative policies he found already in place.

Bishop John was assiduous in keeping up the good practice of regular visitation of the parishes of the diocese which is an important part of the ministry of a diocesan bishop. During the visitation he would go to the parish school where he would meet with students, teachers and the board of trustees. Here he was always aware of his responsibility as teacher of the faith. I remember his telling me on one occasion of his concern that some of the students seemed not to know the biblical and Church teaching about life after death and the resurrection of the body. So he explained to them the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ and what that signified for the resurrection of each Christian on the Day of judgement. It is a lesson he continues to teach us today. In the passage from St John’s Gospel which he chose for this Requiem Mass and which we have just heard, Jesus says: “Those who have done good deeds will rise to the resurrection of life.” It was his own firm belief as it is the solemn teaching of the Church.

In Christchurch Bishop Cunneen took his part in public life. His long time involvement with social causes and with people in need had brought him friends and allies in local social agencies, in the business community and in local government. As a bishop he was able to continue and develop such contacts and he gave his time and his presence generously in public life wherever the collaboration of the Catholic Church was welcome and appropriate.

He also took a full part in the work of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference which enables diocese bishops to cooperate especially on matters of national interest. He did not always find it easy. For a number of years he presided over the ecumenical commission of the Conference and was co-moderator of the dialogue with the Anglican Church of New Zealand.

Here his even temperament and ease of manner were important at a time that was not always propitious for ecumenical relations, a time when new divisions seemed to be emerging and some earlier apparent convergences were unravelling. He knew and put into practice the Catholic principles on ecumenism, principles that ensure that dialogue fosters authentic communion in one faith, in one sacramental life and in one teaching authority, and does not degenerate into lowest common denominator negotiations.

All his priestly life Bishop Cunneen had given himself unstintingly, untiringly; this exacted its toll in 2003 when he had a major stroke that incapacitated him for months; he was never to regain complete mobility. Priests and people were deeply impressed at the way he accepted this affliction and at the determined fight he made, with an amount of success, to overcome the effects of the stroke. In 2007 his retirement was accepted by the Holy See and he was succeeded by his coadjutor, Bishop Barry Jones. Since then Bishop Cunneen has had happy days in St John Fisher House in Brougham Street next to Nazareth House where he and I have each had an apartment, thanks to the generosity of the diocese and have had several years of peaceful retirement. Rather suddenly at the end of July he learned of the cancer that was to end his life. He accepted it with fortitude and great faith He had lived with trust in God’s plan for his life and he approached the end of his days in the same spirit. He greatly appreciated the care he received from the Sisters and staff of Nazareth House these past several weeks as they helped him prepare to pass through the gate of death. He entered that gate in the firm faith that in Christ death is overcome and that life with God awaited him.

Today we pray God’s mercy on Bishop John Jerome Cunneen. May God reward his loving service for the Catholic people of this diocese of Christchurch; our memory of him will be of the great pastoral charity which made his life beautiful for God, a blessing for the Church and a sign of hope for us who remain.

Eternal rest grant to him, O Lord.

And let perpetual light shine upon him.

May he rest in peace.


1 Comment

  1. There is no mention in the eulogy of the appointment of John Jerome Cunneen as titular bishop of Annaghdown, County Galway Ireland.
    As I am writing a book on a family from Annaghdown, I wonder why John Cunneen was chosen for this role and whether he visited Annaghdown during the period he was titular bishop.


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