into the depth of culture and faith

Feb 10, 2013

a reflection for 10 February 2013, the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time.

School is back after our NZ summer break, and this past week we have celebrated 173 years since the first signatures were put to the Treaty of Waitangi

In the past few days I have been mulling the themes of education (back to school), and culture (Waitangi Day). Perhaps today’s (5th Sunday in Ordinary Time) Gospel reading gives us a key to both concerns. 

Jesus invites his disciples to “put out into deep water” (Luke 5:4).  Pope John Paul injected this scripture into common usage in the Catholic church in his letter “at the beginning of the new millennium” reflecting on the achievements of the just completed Year of Jubilee (January 6 2001, Epiphany).

The history of Aotearoa-New Zealand as taught in the schools of our country did not feature the Treaty and its implications until the mid-twentieth century. Until this point, history was presented from the view-point of the conquering colonials. This view generally considered that the European had been generous to the Maori in the terms of the Treaty.

It is also now accepted that Maori and European had significantly different understandings of what they were accepting and agreeing to in this document.

Bishop Pompallier, the first Catholic bishop in NZ, had a good relationship with many Maori chiefs (he was fluent in Te Reo), and with the first Catholic settlers. He warned the chiefs to be wary of the Treaty, and not to sign anything. 

Perhaps he had something of a French suspicion of British motives. But it is also likely that his knowledge of history reminded him that signatures on parchment are powerless to effectively resolve tensions and to bring harmony.

The bishop did have a clear focus on the Catholic education of the young. In the days before February 6 1840, Bishop Pompallier specifically asked Lieutenant-Governor Hobson for his promise to protect the Catholic faith.

Perhaps Pompallier has been proved prophetic? In these early years of the twenty-first century, traditions of ‘culture’ have at times been used to replace traditional religious practice, even in our Catholic schools.

A simple and clear example of this is the priority that some of our Catholic schools give to emphasising cultural considerations over Catholic traditions and rituals. It is increasingly common for a Karanga to be the first thing to happen in a school year, not the Sign of the Cross with  prayer.  Very often it is a Powhiri that provides the ceremonial beginning of the academic year, not the Liturgy of the Church.  

During a Catholic school year, at key moments requiring ceremony and ritual, a Kaumatua might be more likely to be consulted for advice about possibilities, rather than the Prayers of the Church, the Catechism or the local parish or bishop. 

Some New Zealand Catholic schools accept without question the requirements of Maori ritual and traditions (i.e. role of women, the order of speakers, form of address, only men speaking in reply etc, chanting in prayer). However the Church is often dismissed by the same schools for similar demarcation of roles, responsibilities and rubrics for rituals and liturgy.

Perhaps there is an inevitability of a pendulum swing in the history of cultural and religious growth in New Zealand. In the early years of last century the indigenous people of our land were often forced to live as victims of a dominating European voice. 

The Australian experience portrayed in the movie Rabbit Proof Fence is reflected in many New Zealand attitudes. Thanks be to God we have made some progress. But we are still on a long journey as we welcome an increasing number of new immigrants from every culture.

A Catholic School by definition will be an environment of Catholic culture above all else. It is important that the traditions and rituals of the tangata whenua are practised in the schools in our land, along with the rich diversity of traditions and rituals of more recent immigrants. But the central culture in a Catholic school, is the Catholic culture. 

Without a sound foundation in lived relationship with God (or even more generally, without a sense of a transcendent reality), cultural beliefs and practices become empty rituals and theories.  In the terms of today’s Gospel, without faith, all aspects of human existence are reduced to a paddling around in the puddles on the shore of the life-filled ocean.

Every encounter with Jesus entices us into the complete breadth and depth of human existence. In this ultimate relationship, a healthy person becomes bored with what is trivial and superficial. In the gaze of Jesus we wake up to the fact that without faith, both culture and religion become empty routines and tiresome habits. It is only the full depth of life that can satisfy the needs and desires of the human heart.



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