In early December 1979 I met with Bishop Brian Ashby, then bishop of the diocese of Christchurch, asking if he would consider me for seminary. He asked what work I would like to do as a priest. I hadn’t expected this question and answered that I was attracted to both teaching and retreat work. The bishop laughed and responded that the Redemptorists did the retreats, the Marists looked after the teaching and diocesan priests did neither. He then looked at me waiting for my response. I remember saying “but I feel called to be a diocesan priest.” He seemed happy with my explanation and accepted me as a seminarian for his diocese. 35 years later I know the Holy Spirit was calling me to both teaching and retreat work, alongside parish ministry and all of this as a diocesan priest. It is interesting to note that whereas in ’79 there were well over 100 Marist priests in full-time school ministry in New Zealand now there are only a couple, and I don’t know of any Redemptorists doing retreat work in NZ today.
In the past couple of weeks I have been immersed in the lives of many parishioners of the small communities of the Hurunui and the Chatham Islands. Conversations with many parishioners before and after Sunday Masses are a weekly highlight. Some couples are preparing for marriage. I have spent time with the sick and dying. The sale of the Hurunui presbytery in Cheviot has created new challenges and I am now living in temporary, one bedroom accommodation awaiting a decision on the next step for providing a permanent presbytery in the parish. Preparations for Bishop Barry’s pastoral visit to the Chatham Islands are also underway and he and I will spend a week on the islands in early December. And more good news: I have found a priest to supply Christmas Masses for the people of both Pitt and Chatham Islands. Alongside these pastoral responsibilities there has also been some teaching (presenting Benedict XVI’s The Spirit of the Liturgy to the Anglican Roman Catholic Commission of New Zealand) and two retreats (presenting the beginning day and the spiritual exercises of the movement Communion & Liberation) to communities in Melbourne and Manila).
The life that I live as a diocesan priest is certainly diverse. However I know that this diverse life quickly becomes a dissipated existence when what I do as a diocesan priest becomes my prime focus. I am grateful that so much of what I do reminds me of the One who is essential. So much so that (in the theme of the Beginning Day) “I am nothing when you are not present.” One of my favourite art images is Eugene Burnand’s portrayal of Peter and John running to the tomb on the morning of resurrection of Jesus. No doubt there is a lot going on in their lives as their families cope with their new enthusiasms and they try to keep under the Roman radar, but they are captivated by only one motivation, that is their desire to encounter the risen Jesus.
In this mid-week moment there is nothing more satisfying that remembering and savouring this reality of the presence of the risen Jesus, knowing that I am nothing when He is not present, and pressing on to make Him my own.