Bishop's guiding light shines again for faithful

The father of New Zealand Catholicism had to battle suspicion and controversy in his time. ANDREW LAXON examines the life and trials of Bishop Pompallier.

More than 130 years after he left New Zealand, Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier has returned to a hero's welcome.

The remains of the country's first Catholic bishop, exhumed from a Paris cemetery in 1999, were brought back to Auckland yesterday after years of lobbying by New Zealand Catholics.

Over the next few months, the bishop's remains will be carried north from Dunedin in a hikoi finishing in April at Russell, the site of his Catholic mission headquarters from 1839 to 1850.

Amid scenes of such devotion, it is hard to remember that Bishop Pompallier was not always regarded as close to a saint.

In his early days in New Zealand, he was viewed with suspicion by Protestant missionaries in the often tense competition for Maori converts to Christianity - a battle fuelled by traditional English-French rivalry and colonial ambitions.

Most historians agree Pompallier eventually won the grudging respect of his rivals.

But after 30 years in New Zealand, he left in virtual disgrace after his financial mismanagement allowed the Catholic Church to fall heavily into debt.

The 67-year-old, who had crippling rheumatoid arthritis, even faced rumours of a sex scandal involving nuns.

He was officially cleared by the church, but such bad publicity at the end of his career tended to overshadow his earlier achievements.

Since then his reputation has revived, largely thanks to his legendary status among Maori, who regarded him as a rangatira (chief).

From a 21st-century standpoint, it is easy to see why. Pompallier appears as an unusually forward-thinking and liberal missionary, who insisted that his priests should not condemn traditional Maori customs as automatically un-Christian.

Unlike some of his Protestant rivals, he did not insist that Maori converts should wear European dress to church. In his instructions for priests, printed in 1841, he observed that "it is better to go to Heaven wearing native dress than to go to Hell in European clothing".

Pompallier was born in Lyons in 1801 and ordained as a priest at the age of 27. In 1836 he was made a bishop to lead a pioneering Catholic mission to the western Pacific.

He left France with four priests and three brothers of the Marist order, and set up his first mission station at Hokianga in 1838.

Other stations followed at Russell (1839), Mangakahia, Kaipara, Tauranga and Akaroa (1840), Matamata, Opotiki and Maketu (1841), Auckland and Otago (1842), Wellington (1843) and Otaki, Rotorua, Rangiaowhia and Whakatane (1844).

Pompallier spoke no English or Maori when he arrived in New Zealand but quickly learned both.

He won both converts and respect among Maori for his understanding of their language and culture as well as for his natural charisma.

His biographer Father Ernest Simmons noted in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography that "his impressive bearing - some six feet tall - and charming personality were no small assets".

At the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, Pompallier insisted that the treaty's provisions should apply equally to all Maori, whether they converted to the Catholic or Protestant faith.

This extra rider, sometimes described as the fourth article of the treaty, is regarded by many as a guarantee of spiritual freedom.

However, Pompallier was a poor administrator who overcommitted himself financially and was forced to borrow. This created tensions between him and his priests and the Marist order.

Historian Michael King, author of God's Farthest Outpost, A History of Catholics in New Zealand, noted that Pompallier's mission in New Zealand also changed during the 30 years he lived here.

He was chosen by Rome to convert Maori to Catholicism, but in the 1850s and 1860s New Zealand's British-born population, including Catholics, grew tremendously and took over as the church's main priority.

Pompallier may have been a good choice in 1836 but he could not cope with the complex administrative demands of running the church as a national organisation.

When he left for Europe in 1868, the Catholic Church owed its creditors £7000 ($14,000), a large sum in those days.

Simmons said that Pompallier knew he was leaving a financial mess behind but "he was too old, too sick and too tired to cope with it".

Pompallier faced fresh criticism from an unexpected quarter last year. In his book Hone Heke, Nga Puhi Warrior, Auckland historian Paul Moon portrayed the Catholic bishop as a political schemer who sought to undermine the British Crown and provoke Heke into attacking the British.

In the space of two pages Moon, a senior lecturer in Maori studies at the Auckland University of Technology, described Pompallier as insidious, mischievous, seditious and treasonous.

He argued that Pompallier's "spiritual freedom" clause in the Treaty of Waitangi was an attempt to stir up trouble.

There had never been any question that Maori converts to Catholicism would be covered by the treaty until Pompallier mischievously raised it to make chiefs wary of signing, Moon wrote.

As evidence of "the seditious nature of Pompallier's political machinations", he quoted Protestant missionary Richard Davis, who wrote to a colleague that Catholic Maori chiefs in Russell were refusing to sign the treaty "having, they said, been told by the Romish bishop [Pompallier] that if they signed they would in a short time become slaves to the white people".

Moon, who claimed Pompallier had an obsessive hatred of Protestantism, said the bishop revealed his treason in a letter to Heke in 1845.

Pompallier wrote: "If I were an Englishman living with New Zealanders, and if I had ever solicited you to yield the sovereignty of your nation to the English, your heart would do well to mistrust ... but ... I am of a different nation. I have never spoken of you submitting to any foreign power."

Moon says his scathing description of Pompallier in the book is supported by contemporary evidence. He rejects the belief widespread today that the bishop showed any special understanding and compassion for Maori.

"I think he saw them as a device to achieve his own ends, and this is the sad thing about bringing back his body here - that a lot of Maori hold him up almost as a saint.

"The historical record shows quite a different person, a person prepared to manipulate Maori and prepared to manipulate the British to achieve his goals of furthering the intrusion of Catholicism into the country."

Absolute nonsense, replies King, who accuses Moon of reflecting the anti-Catholic prejudices widespread among Protestant missionaries at the time.

King concedes Pompallier's "spiritual freedom" rider to the Treaty of Waitangi was probably designed to protect Catholic interests and should not be seen as purely altruistic.

But far from stirring up trouble, it spared the country of the sectarian conflict which could otherwise have followed.

He argues that Protestant missionaries' claims about Catholic behaviour - including the often repeated line that Catholics paid Maori to attend their church services - are highly unreliable.

Catholics accused Protestants of the same thing but neither side ever produced any evidence, says King.

He also rejects Moon's claim that Pompallier worked to undermine the British. He points out that the bishop took British citizenship and urged his priests to remember they were living in New Zealand, not France, and should respect British rule.

And the sex scandal? King says Pompallier used to visit the nuns to hear their confessions. But when his arthritis deteriorated, they had to come to him.

As resentment over the debt crisis grew within the church, the sight of a series of nuns slipping in to see the bishop was enough to set tongues wagging.

Eventually an Australian bishop appointed by the Vatican carried out an investigation and Pompallier was cleared.

King believes Ernest Simmons best summed up Pompallier's character in the New Zealand Dictionary of Biography.

"The one thing of which he was really guilty was poor administration," wrote Simmons.

"He was not a saint, but a genuinely devout man of very considerable talent and vision, an idealist willing to spend his life in the service of others.

"His vision, however right and admirable, outreached his capacity to fulfil it - and he never realised or admitted the difference."

Winning hearts and minds in 1841

Bishop Pompallier gave his priests detailed advice on dealing with Maori and Europeans in New Zealand in an 1841 booklet, Instructions pour les travaux de la mission (Instructions for mission work).

These are extracts from an English translation of the booklet, supplied by the Catholic Diocese of Auckland.

* Win the approval, confidence and affection of the people. Avoid any rather feeble feminine softness regarding the natives - show them a masculine kindness, full of affection and warmth.

Win the confidence of the mothers by your goodness to their children and win the children with guarded familiarity, little games (which should be carefully learned) and by telling them stories. Bible stories may serve this purpose well.


* Put up with occasional abuses and sins to avoid greater ones, and learn how to take advantage of everything ... If evil cannot be totally prevented, try to stop it partially.

* Watch over the sick, especially those in peril of death. Baptise children who might die, without even telling their fathers and mothers in case they put up some opposition or seem likely to do so.

* God does not require European dress from those who want to serve him - He wants our hearts and that is all ... It is better to go to Heaven wearing native dress than to go to Hell in European clothing.

* Superstitions: Persuade them to abandon their superstitions one after the other, but only when you have studied their customs to see whether any practice really is superstitious.

* Cannibalism: Cannibalism is a very great sin.

* War: War is allowable, and even required of chiefs, when it becomes necessary to defend the life or the interests or the property of their subjects against the injustice of neighbouring tribes. However, before declaring war, they must make every effort to reconcile their grievances by writing, talking and even calling on several other neutral chiefs to arbitrate on their differences.

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