Has the Vatican forgotten to replace New Zealand’s bishops?
You can see why it might have slipped Vatican officials’ minds. New Zealand is not exactly in the Holy See’s neighborhood, after all: it takes a full day to fly from Rome to Wellington, the capital of the island country that lies in the Pacific Ocean.
Also, there are barely half a million Catholics in New Zealand out of a total population of five million. The country ranks in 96th place in the list of nations with the greatest number of Catholics, behind Japan and Russia.
The number of baptized is shrinking, while secularism gains ground. Around a third of New Zealanders described themselves as having no religion in 2006. By 2018, that had risen to almost half.
So, the Vatican might not regard filling New Zealand’s vacant dioceses as an urgent priority.
Two of the six Catholic dioceses in the country are currently vacant. One, the Diocese of Hamilton, has lacked a bishop for almost a year. The other, the Diocese of Palmerston North, has been leaderless for more than three years.
The Pillar spoke with clergy in New Zealand about possible reasons for the delay. They asked to remain anonymous given the small, tight-knit nature of the local Catholic community.
The two dioceses awaiting bishops are both located on New Zealand’s North Island, where the majority of the population lives. Indeed, they are neighboring dioceses. They also serve similar numbers of Catholics: around 70,000 in the Diocese of Hamilton and roughly 64,000 in the Diocese of Palmerston North.
But local clergy saw no significance in this geographical proximity as the two dioceses have never been connected. The territory covered by the Diocese of Hamilton belonged to the Diocese of Auckland until 1980, while the Diocese of Palmerston North was part of the Archdiocese of Wellington until that year.
While Hamilton diocese covers several larger cities, Palmerston North is more rural. They have other differences too.
Hamilton diocese has experienced less turbulence than its neighbor. The diocese has had a total of three bishops. The first, Bishop Edward Gaines, governed for 14 years, until his death in 1994. The diocese was then overseen for 20 years by Bishop Denis Browne, who retired in 2014 at the age of 77. He was replaced that year by Bishop Stephen Lowe, who was appointed bishop of Auckland on Dec. 17, 2021. Lowe is currently serving as apostolic administrator of Hamilton diocese as it awaits a new bishop.
Palmerston North has had only two bishops in its 42-year history. Bishop Peter Cullinane led the new diocese for 32 years until his retirement in 2012. He was succeeded that year by Bishop Charles Drennan, who resigned on Oct. 4, 2019, at the age of 59. Cardinal John Dew of Wellington is serving as apostolic administrator until the appointment of a new bishop.
A local priest said that Bishop Drennan’s resignation was a complex process. Church authorities announced in 2019 that a young woman had accused the bishop of “unacceptable behaviour of a sexual nature.” The complaint triggered a Vos estis probe under the oversight of Cardinal Dew, the metropolitan archbishop. Following the investigation, Bishop Drennan submitted his resignation to the pope.
Cardinal Dew said at the time that the young woman had asked that the details of her complaint remain private, but he emphasized that “in the eyes of the Catholic Church, Bishop Drennan’s behavior was completely unacceptable.”
Drennan was ordered to move out of the diocese and to cease public ministry, but remains a bishop. Local clergy said it was some time after his resignation that he relocated — which might have delayed the process of finding his successor.
Outside observers of Palmerston North diocese said that the local Church had fared surprisingly well without a bishop for the past three years. But there are certain decisions that must wait until the arrival of a new bishop.
“I would say that the group that suffers the most in all of this is probably the diocesan team, because they sort of work for the bishop,” a local priest said. “They’re his people who do his bidding. And I would say of everybody, they’re a little bit lost.”
A bottleneck in Rome?
Catholicism only arrived in New Zealand in 1838, brought by French missionaries. To this day, the country’s episcopal appointments are overseen by the successor body to Propaganda Fide, which is responsible for the Church’s mission territories.
While the Dicastery for Bishops is the principal Vatican department involved in the selection of bishops in Europe and North America, it is the former Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (now incorporated into the Dicastery for Evangelization) that takes charge of the process in New Zealand.
Could this be a reason for the delay? It seems unlikely. The department led by Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle is considered to be adequately staffed and fairly efficient.
But the department doesn’t handle bishops’ appointments by itself. It cooperates with the Vatican Secretariat of State, the powerful body at the heart of the Roman curia. It’s possible that this interaction could slow the process down, but there is no evidence to suggest this is the case.
A recruitment problem?
What if the problem instead is that New Zealand lacks suitable episcopal candidates?
Like other countries in the Western world, New Zealand has experienced a priestly vocations crisis. The national seminary — Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland — currently has 13 students in residence and two on placements. The candidates come not only from New Zealand, but also Vietnam, Hong Kong, the Philippines, America, and Tonga.
A priest belonging to a religious order told The Pillar that he could easily name five good candidates for the vacant sees. He argued that the problem was not the availability of candidates, but rather the criteria by which they are chosen, which he felt were outmoded.
He said he had been asked to fill in forms about potential bishops which asked questions such as whether there was any reason in the candidate’s family that would cause scandal to the Church.
“We’re looking for these men who are pluperfect,” he said.
A diocesan priest commented: “The model still looks for men who are able to be subservient, and at the same time almost be careerists. And so it becomes a sort of oxymoron that you’re looking for.”
The nuncio and the bishops
Since 2019, the Tanzanian Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa has served as apostolic nuncio to New Zealand. He is also the nuncio for a dizzying array of other territories, including Fiji, Tonga, and Samoa.
He has overseen some significant appointments, such as Bishop Lowe’s move to Auckland and Bishop Paul Martin’s nomination as coadjutor archbishop of Wellington in 2021, and Bishop Michael Gielen’s transfer to Christchurch in May this year. But these involved previously ordained bishops.
Nuncios often collaborate with a country’s bishops to draw up lists of suitable candidates for vacant sees. Priests speculated that a reason for the delay in appointments in New Zealand could be the relationship between the nuncio and the bishops. They suggested that they might have different “visions of Church” and find it hard to converge on candidates.
At his installation Mass in Auckland in March, Bishop Lowe thanked Archbishop Rugambwa for his presence.
“Can I please ask you to work hard to find a great bishop for Hamilton? I think Palmerston North and Christchurch are looking for one too,” he remarked, to laughter in the congregation.
There was nothing in the light-hearted comment to suggest there was a gulf between the nuncio and the bishops. But it did imply that the lack of new bishops is weighing on Church leaders’ minds.
Archbishop Rugambwa had not responded to a request for comment at the time of publication.
Uniting the dioceses
One option the Vatican might consider is uniting the Hamilton and Palmerston North dioceses under one bishop without merging them. This process, known as linking dioceses in persona episcopi, has been used in recent years in Canada, Ireland, Italy, Spain, and Wales.
That might be an attractive prospect in New Zealand as it would only require the recruitment of one bishop to oversee the two currently vacant dioceses. As the dioceses would not be merged, it arguably would not matter that they have never been linked before.
Or the Vatican could simply stick to the traditional process and appoint two new bishops when it was confident it had found suitable candidates. When that might be is anyone’s guess.