The Pope's New Zealand connection

Pope Francis in the Vatican in December. His friendlier, more accessible style has been praised.

Pope Francis in the Vatican in December. His friendlier, more accessible style has been praised.

Is the Pope really leading a revolution inside the Catholic Church and is there a role for New Zealanders in it? PHILIP MATTHEWS reports.

We love it when the world notices us, here at the edge or in the corner. Taylor Swift flies in, Jeremy Clarkson picks a fight: even the insults count as attention. But there was a much better one in 2015 that went mostly unreported, and that is when the Pope noticed us. 

He did not just notice, he quoted. Pope Francis cited an example from New Zealand in the massive encyclical, or official letter, titled Laudato Si', that was published in June. The subject of the letter was the environment. Or, in the Pope's words, "on care for our common home".

Pope Francis charmed even US President Barack Obama on a visit to Washington DC in 2015.

Pope Francis charmed even US President Barack Obama on a visit to Washington DC in 2015.

In a way, the long and widely acclaimed letter was a scene-setter, six months ahead of the United Nations climate change conference in Paris. Here was a major world leader taking a strong and thoughtful position on the need for action. And New Zealand? He quoted New Zealand Catholic bishops who had asked what the Christian commandment "thou shalt not kill" could mean when "20 per cent of the world's population consumes resources at a rate that robs the poor nations and future generations of what they need to survive".

That comment came from a New Zealand bishops' conference in 2006 and would have been discovered as the Pope started his research. To be fair, bishops from many other places were quoted too. New Zealand Cardinal John Dew sees it as indicative of a new, more open leadership style.

Some of the subtleties may be lost on non-believers. But Dew says that ever since the Argentinian cardinal formerly known as Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope in 2013, and took the name Francis to establish a connection with St Francis of Assisi, the Papal style has been more democratic, more accessible.

Cardinal John Dew, pictured speaking to students at St Joseph's School in Nelson, is impressed that the Pope is putting ...
Marion van Dijk

Cardinal John Dew, pictured speaking to students at St Joseph's School in Nelson, is impressed that the Pope is putting social justice issues on the world stage.

For example, the Pope will often refer to himself as simply the Bishop of Rome, which has a democratising effect.

"In doing that, he's saying that we are all bishops together," Dew says. "His leadership style, in its simplicity and humility, is sending messages to the church, its bishops and priests, and to the world, that leadership is about serving others. It's not about positions of honour or being treated in a special way because you have a position of authority."

Dew observed this at the Synod of Bishops in Rome in 2015. The Pope queued up for coffee at morning tea time like everyone else. He came and went without too much fanfare. At a meeting of 120 people, he stopped and talked to every person individually. 

Sharron Cole was a lay auditor at the recent synod in Rome. She loves the way the Pope includes people.
SUPPLIED/Manawatu Standard.

Sharron Cole was a lay auditor at the recent synod in Rome. She loves the way the Pope includes people.

"There is nothing aloof, nothing removed about him." 

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Dew was one of four New Zealanders at the synod. The others were Bishop Charles Drennan of Palmerston North and two lay auditors, John Kleinsman and Sharron Cole. 

"I think we are all rejoicing in his informality, simplicity of friendships and ease among ordinary people," Drennan says, before adding that this "does not equate to an abandonment of ideals or teachings, which is something arch-conservatives accuse him of". Drennan also saw Pope Francis play the boss card during tense moments: "He reminded everyone that we are with him but also under him - cum Petrus et sub Petrus. His particular duty as Pope is to preserve unity in the church." 

Bishop Charles Drennan warns against treating the Pope like one of the Kardashian sisters.

Bishop Charles Drennan warns against treating the Pope like one of the Kardashian sisters.

"I love the way he speaks, treats people and embraces people," Cole says, while stressing that, at 63, and chair of the Parents Centre New Zealand board and a former Deputy Chief Families Commissioner, she is "not exactly a star-struck child". 

She continues: "He just doesn't exclude people. I admire that because that whole pastoral culture is critical." 

No, Cole has never met Bill Clinton but a comparison could be made with the focus he famously has, the way he makes people feel like they are the only one in the room. And that accessibility: in Rome she saw that the Pope's expressions and interactions are "endearingly like the rest of us", not ethereal or otherworldly. 

"I've got lots of non-Catholic friends and I haven't met anyone who doesn't think he's pretty wonderful." 

This is not just about charisma or personal appeal. Cole is on the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Committee for Interfaith Relations and she is aware that the Pope had already done the interfaith work. Look at his relationships with the heads of Jewish and Muslim communities in Argentina.

This has continued: in December, the Vatican declared that from now on "the Catholic Church neither conducts nor supports any specific institutional mission work directed towards Jews". In short, it is no longer Catholic policy to convert Jews. This has been called "a historic shift".

Such praise has followed the Pope since 2013. People love the acts of humility, the wise words, the modest gestures. The focus on the poor that he established as Archbishop of Buenos Aires has continued as Bishop of Rome. He is "a humble Pope, challenging the world," as the New York Times put it in 2015 on the eve of a US visit.

From many possible examples of striking acts and statements, Dew picks one from early in his time as Pope. In July 2013, the Pope visited the Italian island of Lampedusa, a destination for illegal migrants from North Africa on their way to Europe. He condemned a "globalisation of indifference", the way that suffering no longer affects us, and praised Italians who had tried to help. Human trafficking was put on the world stage.

"Those issues have always been part of what we call Catholic social teaching, but he is highlighting them in such a way and using words and actions to bring them to the attention of the world. He uses colourful examples with force." 

The election of Pope Francis in 2013 coincided with a census that showed that Catholicism has overtaken Anglicanism and become New Zealand's leading Christian denomination. According to the census, there are 492,105 Catholics and 459,771 Anglicans. This is not about growth but less significant decline: the Anglican population fell by 17.1 per cent over seven years but Catholicism fell by just 3.2 per cent.

It is likely that the current Pope's style will keep those numbers from slipping further. If you were cynical, you might say that he has natural marketing skill, a knack for public relations. You might say that he is the friendly modern image the church needed after the more conservative and defensive era of Pope Benedict XVI and the international disaster of the child sex abuse cover-ups.  

But is change more than cosmetic?

"He's definitely being received as more progressive than his predecessors on a number of issues," says Robert Myles, a lecturer in religion at the University of Auckland. "He has been outspoken on issues of poverty and capitalism. But I would be cautious of viewing him through rose-tinted glasses." 

Myles is the author of a book called The Homeless Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew and co-editor of Sexuality, Ideology and the Bible. As "a non-believer with a deep respect for religion", he is particularly interested in how people interpret the Bible through the lens of politics. 

A political context for Pope Francis is the interactions the church has with the poor of South America and, going deeper, the popular but suppressed movement known as liberation theology. Myles calls liberation theology "a grassroots movement that emphasised God's preferential options for the poor and oppressed". While the current Pope was not explicitly connected with it, "some of his rhetoric seems to stem from this tradition that emphasises the social gospel, social justice and caring for the poor". 

For a long time, liberation theology has been a belief system that dare not speak its name. With its links to socialism, it was suppressed during the 1980s while the church under Pope John Paul II took an explicitly anti-communist line. 

But Myles remains on the fence for now. If he was to compare the Pope with a US president, he would pick Barack Obama. His election was also taken as a watershed moment but the presidency has mostly been more of the same, only shifted very slightly to the left. 

"It might be a similar case here, where neither is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize quite yet."


What is a synod, exactly? To use its full title, it was the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops. The international conference of bishops from whom the Pope takes advice started under the liberalising influence of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s but for a long time it has been little more than a rubber-stamping exercise in which the Pope's words were read back to him, as Thomas Reese explained in the National Catholic Reporter in November. 

Reese wrote that the Synod of Bishops is better now than it was. There is greater openness. But it could be improved further by increasing the input of lay people, he wrote. Then he gave a specific example.

"At this last synod, a lay auditor raised questions about Humanae Vitae," Reese wrote. "She was ignored, but at earlier synods, she would have been sent home in disgrace."

Reese does not name her but that lay auditor was Sharron Cole of Wellington. Humanae Vitae was an encyclical from 1968 that, among other things, reasserted the church's hard line on artificial birth control. 

"The fact that I was free to say what I said was a distinct change," Cole says. "The Pope expected people to disagree."

Aware of his pun, Drennan agrees that Pope Francis wanted people to be frank.

Cole was appointed by the Pope as a lay auditor, although not directly. But why did he seek New Zealanders' opinions this time?

"He is very interested in hearing the voices and experiences of people from what the Vatican calls the periphery," she says. "And New Zealand is about as far away from Rome as it is possible to get."

The Pope himself spent little time in the Vatican before his election and has maintained that marginality.

"Other popes have been cut off from where they came from, but this Pope refuses to be cut off." 

The official subject of the synod was the family. Many in the west who have seen the Pope as a liberalising force expected the church to move on the big issues of gay marriage and whether divorced Catholics could take communion. As Cole says, there was plenty of discussion on both, "but the church won't approve of gay marriage". There was some openness to gay civil unions but official Catholicism remains adamant that a married couple is a man and a woman. Nor did the final report on the synod offer a way to readmit divorced Catholics. 

This was partly a case of media expectations differing from reality. There was talk about economic challenges to the family. the role of the family in faith formation and education and what marriage preparation involves. For a global community, there will always be different priorities in different places. Cardinal John Dew saw that concerns in the developed world often paled against dramatic or grim stories from the developing world.

"We were going with the concerns of people here and then you have bishops talking about people living in extreme poverty, people being forced from their homes by the actions of terrorists, bishops from Asia talking about the huge migration of families to find employment. The issues of the western world don't seem as important. They are to people here, of course."

There is a balancing act to maintain between the developed world where organised religion is generally in decline and the developing world where it is still strong, and where Christianity often competes directly with Islam for hearts and minds. That said, there can be nuances, as Cole observed.

"The African position with respect to homosexuality is where Europe was probably 30 years ago," she says. "Some understanding, some acceptance, but the majority do not." 

On the other hand, cohabitation is "completely accepted" as a stage towards marriage in Africa and the church might need to accommodate that cultural variation. 

At the synod, Dew saw the Pope's famously accessibility in action. He was appointed to a writing party and one afternoon, Pope Francis wandered into their meeting room unannounced, sat down with them like the world's most relaxed chief executive and said, "Give me something I can work with. I want something that gives people hope and inspires people."

When asked about the Pope's style, Drennan urges people to go beyond style. "The last thing this Pope would want is groupies," he says. "He is the antithesis of the Kardashian sisters." 

His appeal is indeed widespread but to what effect, Drennan asks. The tough thing to grapple with is that his concerns for the poor and for the planet are inseparable from recognising and believing in God and changing how we live. That message risks becoming uncomfortable, especially for non-believers who might casually admire a more progressive line.

"It unsettles us. At that point, many people - certainly not all - distance themselves and turn to a less demanding page. Pope Francis is not necessarily anti-capitalist but he has certainly declared spiritual war on greed, corruption and exploitation. And he continually asks, how will this policy or practice impact the poor?

"I think this is inspiring lots of people to do the same. We want people focused not profit driven societies. But that does cost or require sacrifice or change. We are comfortable that he speaks out for the poor but when that filters through to questions of democracy or living wages or debt relief or sustainable mining and fishing, it is tempting to tune in to a less challenging voice."

There are other big challenges in the near future. You might imagine that Dew and Drennan experienced the synod very differently from Cole. She was a lay auditor and they were a cardinal and a bishop, and there is no getting past the fact that a synod will by definition be largely a gathering of old men.

The Irish bishop who moderated Cole's group was 53 and called himself a "baby bishop". Bishops are expected to retire at 75. That broadly defines the age range. 

"It's still incredibly dominated by older males," she agrees. "Women might have had some input and we certainly had our say in small circles but we did not get to vote." 

Yes, she acknowledges that Catholic women in New Zealand have a much better social position than Catholic women in many other countries, but there must still be progress. The Pope disappointed many both inside and outside the church when he said in September that he would maintain the ban on women priests.  

"There is still a long way to go for women in the church," Cole says. "I can't accept that this is where we will end up."

"At the end of the day, Pope Francis is still involved in a heavily patriarchal institution," Robert Myles adds. "Some of his words about women being more important are encouraging. But until there is significant reform, I think we should probably remain sceptical about whether he is progressive, particularly on issues of gender and sexuality."

 - Stuff

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