Maori priest a rare voice in the north

By Yvonne Tahana

Catholic priest says Pope Francis' election is a good time for members of the church to reassess their faith.

Pa Petera Tipene is the only fulltime Maori Catholic priest from Auckland to Cape Reinga. Photo / Sarah Ivey
Pa Petera Tipene is the only fulltime Maori Catholic priest from Auckland to Cape Reinga. Photo / Sarah Ivey

At yesterday's Palm Sunday service Pa Petera Tipene was causing a few of his female parishioners to run for the back ranks.

Filipinos, Indians, Chinese, Pakeha, and Polynesians make the most of multicultural Auckland on a gorgeous sunny morning.

They're gathered outside Christ the King Catholic church, which has sweeping views back towards Mt Roskill and the Sky Tower.

They're laughing a little as Pa Petera, as he's known in Maori circles, or Father Peter, gets enthusiastic with splashing the holy water over the greenery people hold out for blessing.

One woman dressed head to toe in bright purple retreats from a front row spot to one three back. She's not too subtle about her close escape.

"It's only holy water," the priest says with a broad smile, flicking a good amount in her direction.

In this cosmopolitan mix there aren't too many Maori present.

Geographically speaking, Maori priests are also thin on the ground. From Auckland to Cape Reinga there are just three, although Pa Petera, 50 this year, who was the 14th to take the cloth, is the only full-timer.

Pa Henare Tate, a man beloved throughout Catholic circles, has retired to Motuti in the Far North while Pa Tony Brown is on sick leave, recovering from a stroke.

Five more serve in other regions.

In 1994, Pa Petera was ordained in Panguru in the Hokianga, where his father hails from. It's a region which is considered to be the birthplace of the religion in this country after Bishop Pompallier sailed up the harbour in 1838 and held the first service at Totara Pt.

Avondale-raised, Pa Petera remembers the people asking for him to stay a year - which he did, but with initial anxieties.

"I thought, 'imagine being stuck up there with my gumboots - hahaha.'

"I keep saying to my friends, 'why don't you go up north?' They say, 'Oh I don't think I could survive' away from their family. It's just too isolated. I thought the same too before I went, but it was just such a relaxed lifestyle."

The real work was when tangihanga were on. The three-day process of running prayers and then the final Mass before burial could take its toll. He'd dread the phone ringing, for fear it was news of another death.

Now, when he returns for holidays, they aren't really restful. Instead, he's roped in to do all the ceremonies which get put off during the year.

"They hear Pa's in town, 'Oh, kia ora Pa, we've got a couple of our mokos here for baptism - and oh, we've been thinking of having Aunty so-and-so's unveiling. So now that you're here and free ...' That's how it goes. By the same token because we don't have enough Maori priests you can't really blame them."

In 2006 nearly 70,000 Maori identified with Catholicism, not an insignificant number. Anecdotally, Pa Petera believes fewer and fewer Katorika Maori are turning up on Sundays. With the election of Pope Francis it's a good time for the church - and for Maori who follow the faith - to reassess and take stock, he says.

Earlier in the week he told a funny story about his own family's expression of faith. "My own nieces and nephews, I'll take them away for the weekends and we'll have a great time and I'll say to them, 'Mass in the morning?' And they'll go, 'If we're up.' And I'm the parish priest! These mongrel nieces and nephews. They'll swear black and blue 'Oh, Pa's my uncle,' but they never darken the door of the church. Good, lovely people but going to Mass every Sunday or being part of a faith community isn't a big deal. There's no connection there."

He believes that's a situation replicated across the country. It's a sentiment which probably started from his own and successive generations have become lost to the church.

The rituals of miha, Mass, are important because they reinforce a relationship with Jesus Christ, he says. How the church can re-engage itself with Maori is a question he asks himself repeatedly. "It's a hard question. I am always thinking, 'what do I do to grab them back?'

"I do wonder if our deep spiritual longing, especially within the Catholic tradition, has diminished as the years have gone by - life has got in the way. Sports, Sunday trading, other things have replaced God."

It's not a sadness, but a concern. If Maori men don't put their hands up to become priests then the church will carry on in Maori strongholds of the faith, but will be less rich for the lack of their own priests, he says.

Even as a young man Pa Petera says he'd wanted to be a priest. He's one of five siblings and in his parents' home hung a calendar featuring Columban missionaries. One pictured a priest in full black robe, big black hat on, strolling through paddy fields. Pa Petera at 16 had the romantic notion that he'd be converting Chinese in his adulthood.

His parents weren't so sure, they told him to work for a year and if the order would have him after that time he could join. He worked for nine in a post office. He had girlfriends, loved working and socialising.

But it was the ordination of the first Maori Bishop, Takuira Mariu, that reignited the desire to serve in the late 1980s when he was 26.

The working priest wants his flock to be a happy one when they come to church and when they leave.

"Someone said to me the other day, 'Father we love going to church here because we always go away uplifted.' I'd like every encounter here to be people experiencing the love and joy of God [so] even in sad times they realise there's still joy in the world."

Do priests need to be celibate? Would more Maori join if they could have families?
"I live the life of a celibate priest and I love it. I commit myself wholly to the work I'm doing ...

"I had a couple of girlfriends before I went in. I do remember when I entered the priesthood a lot of my cousins said to me, 'Cuz, does that mean you can't have a Mrs?' They go, 'Fooo, why would you do that?' As they move on to their sixth partner he he he."

Are priests trusted less because of sexual abuse scandals?
"When I was working in Epsom there were a strong run of stories. We had some new altar servers who I'd trained. I was having some photos with them and the parents were going, 'Father get closer, put your arms around them, hug them.' I was thinking - don't these people read the papers?

"So there's a deep trust that people have. That's something powerful."

On Brian Tamaki taking on the title of Bishop
"In our Church we have a tradition that people are chosen on the merits of who they are as priests ... with the backing of Rome. I tend to think there's something good about the process that's there.

"If he's leading people to God and giving people a taste of God is love, I have no problems. What I did have a problem with was his whole anti-gay movement when they were quite outspoken about the gay community. I remember thinking: That's not love."

On gays and lesbians
"One of my cousins who was a transvestite died a couple of years ago. They buried him in full drag and beehive. A television show asked me how did I feel as a priest being there. I said, 'That's my cousin.' That's all I needed to say. That's my blood, why wouldn't I be here?"

Would he marry same sex-couples?
"Probably not, because that's not part of the Church's teaching."

Does he prefer officiating at baptisms, weddings or funerals?
"I love it when babies scream. I just get quicker. I recognise competition when I hear it.

"I prefer funerals. I've had a few bridezillas. You get the thousand emails and messages and they want three or four rehearsals. Then they have the cheek to say I'd like you to try and make it personal and I love liturgy and making it personal. I really go out of my way to pull out all the stops.

Few are chosen
340 Catholic priests in NZ
In Auckland north there are only three Maori priests. One is retired, one is ill, one is serving:
*Pa Henare Tate - parish priest Panguru/Pawarenga (in retirement) Hokianga
*Pa Tony Brown - Auckland Diocese Vicar for Maori and parish priest Holy Whanau, Te Unga Waka (on sick leave)
*Pa Peter Tipene - parish priest, Owairaka

NZ Catholics
*508,437, second-largest religion behind the Anglicans' 554,925
*2001-2006 increase of 4.7 per cent
*69,576 Maori Catholics
*According to Statistics NZ 2006; 2013 figures not available

-Petera Tipene

- NZ Herald

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