Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bishop Pompallier

The Catholic Church in New Zealand was established by means of the apostolic efforts of Jean Baptiste François Pompallier. Bishop Pompallier went to evangelize Oceania with the support of Queen Marie-Amélie, a great-niece of Marie-Antoinette's. As a missionary, Pompallier had remarkable success with the Maoris, learning the Maori language and converting one of the Maori chiefs, all within six months of his arrival in New Zealand. According to New Zealand History Online:
Bishop Pompallier was born in Lyons, France, in 1802. He was consecrated Bishop with responsibility for Western Oceania (including New Zealand) in 1836. He arrived in New Zealand in 1838, and by the mid-1840s had established a number of Catholic missions. By 1843 the French missions claimed about 45,000 Maori converts.

The position of the French mission was precarious. Relations between Britain and France were tense at this time, most British settlers were hostile, and the English Church Missionary Society was making inroads. These difficulties were worsened by isolation, lack of resources, and disruption caused by the wars. Most of the French missions failed – except in the north, where a Catholic influence was maintained.

Pompallier was sympathetic to Maori concerns, and for his time, he had an enlightened view towards Maori culture. He was at Waitangi when the Treaty was signed on 6 February 1840, and asked Lieutenant-Governor Hobson for his promise to protect the Catholic faith. This pledge is sometimes referred to as the unwritten "fourth article" of the Treaty, and is said to protect and recognise not only major western religions, but also Maori custom.

In 2002, the Cardinal Archbishop of Wellingtion said the following words about bishop Pompallier's legacy:
If asked to set down what really matters in our lives, surely most of us would have the gift of the Catholic Faith high up on the list.

Then if we were to ask ourselves: "How did we come by this gift of faith?” we may mention our parents or a teacher, a priest or a friend. But how did they come by it? How did our faith get here to our country, to our region?

166 years ago the then Pope appointed a young French priest, Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier, to be head of the Catholic mission to Western Oceania. He was only 34 years old and was placed in charge of a vast area. The story of his travel from France, his stopping off on various places on the way (in Tahiti, Tonga, Wallis and Futuna, Rotuma) makes fascinating reading.

He arrived early January 1838 in Aotearoa New Zealand and worked for thirty years to bring the Catholic faith to the people of this land. He was helped by Maori won to the faith before his arrival, priests and brothers of the Society of Mary, immigrant Catholic families from England and Ireland, Sisters of Mercy, and other Religious. He was quick to learn both English and Maori. He founded missions in 16 different places throughout the length of our country.

He had a close relationship with many Maori leaders. Few New Zealanders, including Catholics, know about the contribution made by Bishop Pompallier at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. There he insisted that a clause be added which would guarantee the right of religious freedom for all.

After thirty years of hard work - old, sick and tired - he returned to France and was buried near Paris. Yet he had left behind a pearl of great value, the gift of Faith.

In 2002 the remains of Bishop Pompallier were returned to New Zealand where he had worked under very difficult conditions for the salvation of souls.


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