Blue sky, bright sun and a light breeze welcomed priests and parishioners from Te Tai Tokerau or other parts of New Zealand, who had gathered on Sunday Jan 10th, on a bank of the Hokianga River at Totara Point in Northland.
Every year on a particular Sunday in January, a ‘church en plein air’- made of people and not of permanent structures – comes into sight at Totara Point in Hokianga for a duration of a just one mass. But it is a very significant mass and those who make an effort of being there – the priests, religious and lay people, whether coming from close or afar, all share a truly unique ‘connection’ and a feeling of gratitude to a French priest who many years ago, had travelled from afar, sailed up into the unfamiliar Hokianga Harbour waters, disembarked at Totara Point, and on a Sunday, January 13, 1838 had celebrated there the very 1st Catholic mass on the New Zealand soil.
It was Bishop Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier, a long-awaited in New Zealand catholic priest and it all happened 178 years ago. Bishop Pompallier had brought to Aotearoa the Catholic faith and the Eucharist and Hokianga has thus become known as ‘Te Kohanga O te Hahi Katorika, ki Aotearoa’ – The cradle of the Catholic faith in New Zealand. This year, Pa Henare Tate, the resident priest at Motuti, together with Fr Richard Cortes, parish priest in Panguru and four visiting priests had celebrated the commemorative mass with the faithful who had came from a number of places (Panguru, Motuti, Motukaraka, Rawene, Opononi, Kaitaia, Kerikeri, Whangarei and Auckland, to name a few). The theme of the Sunday’s Gospel – Jesus’ baptism – was developed in the homily and connections to the diocesan “Fit for Mission” plan were highlighted.
After the ‘living church’ was enlightened with the Word and nourished with the Eucharist, its ‘earthly bodies’ were also well looked after thanks to the traditional local hospitality and food brought to share. And so, the ‘mass’ setting was promptly changed into an ‘agape feast’ one, to allow for the time of fellowship. The chairs under the marquees were pushed away to make space for the tables which had been set with delicious and abundant kai. It was an opportunity to enjoy each other’s company, to mix & mingle and, why not, to hike a small hill above to see the ‘Centennial Plinth’ erected there in 1938 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1st mass.
While the 200th anniversary of the 1st Catholic mass is still ‘a good few’ years away, we are already on a ‘journey’ of getting ourselves prepared to mark its uniqueness when the time comes. We are very fortunate in New Zealand to be able to ‘know’ the people, the places and almost the exact times of the events that had initiated or strengthened our Catholic faith.
Later some made a longer ‘hike’ and before heading home, drove to Motuti to visit Hata Maria (St Mary’s) Church, to pass through its ‘Holy Door’, the ‘door’ that was opened on Dec 8th as a symbolic entrance into the Year of Mercy, and to pray at the burial place of Bishop Pompallier. The remarkably carved and decorated casket containing his remains was raised from beneath the altar for the occasion and Sister Magdalen Sheahan told the story of this first Catholic bishop of New Zealand, of his missionary work and of the Hikoi in 2002 to bring his remains from France to New Zealand.
Inside the church the attention was also drawn to the Icon of ‘Our Lady of Czestochowa’ (Poland), also known as the ‘Black Madonna’. I shared with a few present how I had brought this particular Icon from Poland and offered it in October 2011 to Hata Maria church as a gift from Cardinal of Cracow, Stanislaw Dziwisz (the former Private Secretary of the late Pope, Saint John Paul II), as a ‘substitute’ for ‘another’ Black Madonna icon which had had previously found its ‘temporary home’ at St Mary’s church in Motuti. That ‘other’ icon had been gifted by the Holy Father Saint John Paull II during his apostolic visit to New Zealand in 1986 and for periods of time it ‘travelled’ and sojourned in various churches throughout New Zealand till, a few years ago, it was moved to its definite and current site, St Patrick’s Cathedral in Auckland. Hata Maria had got particularly fond of ‘their’ Black Madonna while hosting her and had dearly longed for a ‘replacement’….
The “Black Madonna”, like the “Pompallier Madonna” – a gift from Pope Pius IX in 1847 to Bishop Pompallier and brought by him to New Zealand, but which went missing from St Patrick’s College, Wellington in 1978, – together with many other holy images of Our Lady loved, honoured and prayed before – allow us to join in a long tradition of honouring the Blessed Virgin, Saint Patron of Aotearoa, and asking her to be our advocate, guide and counsel on our earthly peregrination.
So let us go on a ‘discovery trip’, a ‘faith-trail pilgrimage’ – whether in person or in spirit, now or later, alone or in a group – we can follow the milestones of our Faith and the footsteps of those who had had a significant impact on it, visiting and praying at the shrines and places of worship, and accomplishing the works of mercy – drawing ever closer to the loving God those who are already on this journey and attracting others to join in.
The mass has ended, the journey continues…