Flocks without shepherds – one-third of New Zealand dioceses without bishops

The Diocese of Hamilton has been waiting for a new bishop for nearly a year, while Palmerston North has been private for three years (file photo).

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The Diocese of Hamilton has been waiting for a new bishop for nearly a year, while Palmerston North has been private for three years (file photo).

New Zealand is short of two bishops, with one diocese waiting three years – and cashing in – for a replacement.

The dioceses of Hamilton and Palmerston North represent one-third of the country’s six ecclesiastical jurisdictions and serve more than 100,000 Catholics.

Waiting for Palmerston North for three years and Hamilton for almost a year.

The pope is fueling that delay in determining the future of the church, a complex nomination process and an aging priesthood, commentators say.

READ MORE:
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* Palmerston North is still awaiting a new bishop to replace Charles Drennan

Bishop Steve Lowe was in Hamilton but was asked to take over in Auckland in December 2021. He is pictured in 2017.

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Bishop Steve Lowe was in Hamilton but was asked to take over in Auckland in December 2021. He is pictured in 2017.

The process of appointing new bishops is not straightforward, especially given the distance between New Zealand and the Holy See, says Bishop Stephen Lowe of Auckland: “The process of appointing a bishop is not fast, and this can lead to frustration and speculation about what is going on. Behind the scenes, however, the process is taking place.

However, the faithful can rest assured knowing that their call for new bishops is being heard.

“The process of appointing new bishops for the two dioceses is ongoing and under the supervision of the apostolic nuncio, which is the usual way of appointing bishops,” explains New Zealand Cardinal John Dew.

The current nuncio, like an ambassador to New Zealand, Archbishop Novatus Rugambwa, provides a pool of suitable candidates for the vacancy to Pope Francis who then makes the final selection.

Hamilton Catholic Cathedral has been without a bishop for nearly a year, but Auckland Bishop Steve Lowe said the nomination process is underway.

Mark Taylor / Stuff

Hamilton Catholic Cathedral has been without a bishop for nearly a year, but Auckland Bishop Steve Lowe said the nomination process is underway.

But why has it taken so long to appoint new bishops?

The reasons are a complex combination of papal delays, a professional seminary tradition and, according to Dr Nicholas Thompson of the University of Auckland, an aging priesthood that could make it difficult to select experienced candidates with sufficient longevity.

The two vacancies arose from very different circumstances.

The last appointed Bishop of Hamilton, Stephen Lowewas asked to take over the Diocese of Auckland in December last year after the eyesight of his predecessor, Bishop Pat Dunne, deteriorated.

For now, Lowe helps oversee the Diocese of Hamilton in a less involved role as an apostolic administrator.

The delay in appointing new bishops is partly due to a busy Vatican synod on synodality.

The delay in appointing new bishops is partly due to a busy Vatican synod on synodality.

The last Bishop of Palmerston North, Charles Drennan, was asked to step down in 2019 after he admitted to sexual behavior unbecoming of the clergy — in what has become a common theme for a beleaguered Catholic Church.

And the pope is busy, according to Dew: “Pope Francis has been very busy with a ‘Synod on Synodality’ in which Catholics around the world have been asked to say what the future of the Church should be.”

This, some clergy speculate, could be the reason for the delay. The church just has bigger fish to fry.

The disgraced former Bishop of Palmerston North, Charles Drennan, has resigned after acknowledging “sexual behavior unbecoming of clergy.

Robert Charles / Stuff

The disgraced former Bishop of Palmerston North, Charles Drennan, has resigned after acknowledging “sexual behavior unbecoming of clergy.

The role of bishop is not one you simply apply for, says Father Matthew Vadakkevettuvazhiyil, rector of one of only two seminaries in the country, Holy Cross. On the contrary, the job requires a dedication to the church and its morals.

“These men have chosen a vocation, it is a call, a discernment.”

The decision to become a clergyman is profound.

“You decide to serve as a spiritual leader for his community,” says Vadakkevettuvazhiyil.

Although it takes time to be ordained, there are simply fewer priests than there used to be. A Hamilton church member said, “There is a general shortage of priests, but there is a good pool of candidates.

During Bishop Stephen Lowe’s Installation Mass last December, the new Bishop of Auckland ironically reminded Rugambwa that Hamilton and Palmerston North were still waiting for a word from the Pope.

“May I ask you to work hard to find a great bishop for Hamilton? I think Palmerston North is looking for one too.

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