Pope John Paul II called for New Zealand's bishops to exercise strong leadership in the face of a continuing erosion of faith and the inroads of secularism. His statement was made on 14 September, during the bishops' five-yearly ad limina visit to the Holy See. His words echoed those he used when addressing Australia's bishops at the time of the Synod of Oceania and the release of the Statement of Conclusions.
The Pope was particularly concerned at the spiritual health of New Zealand's Catholic schools, especially their catechetical programs. He reminded the bishops that the worth of Catholic schools could not "be measured simply in numbers", since schools needed to "be active agents of evangelisation at the heart of parish life."
As in Australia, a major challenge, given the predominant role of the laity in today's Catholic schools, is to ensure that teachers believe and practise the Faith. John Paul II's words in this regard were unequivocal: "As Bishops, it is your grave obligation to assist teachers to deepen their personal witness to Jesus Christ among the young and to grow in their readiness to teach pupils to pray, thereby enriching their contribution to the specific nature and mission of Catholic education."
In practical terms, this means ensuring that the education Catholic teachers receive is thoroughly orthodox. As the Pope put it: "This demands, particularly for specialist teachers, a solid theological and spiritual preparation that is in harmony with that of your priests; it also points to the need to ensure that your tertiary education chaplaincies are vibrant sources of sound catechesis."
This area has remained an ongoing source of concern in Australia, as well as New Zealand, when the beliefs and practices of many teacher graduates from Australian Catholic University are at variance with those of the Church.
The departure of most religious orders from active involvement in Catholic education has been a contributing factor to the problems in today's schools in both New Zealand and Australia. The Holy Father called for this trend to be reversed: "Here I wish also to make a special appeal to the apostolic Religious: strengthen your commitment to the educational and school apostolate! In places where the young are easily lured away from the path of truth and genuine freedom, the consecrated person's witness to the evangelical counsels is a marvelous and irreplaceable gift."
The Holy Father urged the New Zealand Bishops to ensure that religious priests, brothers and sisters played a positive role in their dioceses, witnessing to the ideals of religious life and fostering more religious vocations among young people.
Religious men and women, he said, "need to be encouraged as they too seek to foster ecclesial communion by their co-operative presence and apostolate in your Dioceses. As a gift to the Church, the consecrated life lies at her very heart, manifesting the deep beauty of the Christian vocation to selfless, sacrificial love.
"In accord with your endeavors to promote a 'culture of vocation,' I urge Religious to propose afresh to young people the ideal of consecration and mission found in the various states of ecclesial life which together exist 'that the world may believe' (John 17:21).
The Pope focused on "the effects of unrestrained secularism" so evident in New Zealand, as in other Western countries, and referred to what he termed a radical "split between the Gospel and culture" and a "crisis of meaning". This was encountered as a "distortion of reason by particular interest groups and exaggerated individualism" including a "perspective of life which neglects the search for the ultimate goal and meaning of human existence".
New Zealand, he said, was "experiencing the tragic consequences of the eclipse of the sense of God: the drift away from the Church; the undermining of family life; the facilitation of abortion and prostitution; a misguided vision of life which seeks pleasure and 'success' rather than goodness and wisdom".
Such a situation called for Catholic bishops "to be men of hope, preaching and teaching with passion the splendour of Christ's truth which dispels the darkness and illuminates the true path of life."
As in Australia, the sharp fallaway in Sunday Mass attendance ("a solemn obligation") in recent decades was a cause of major concern since, as John Paul II put it, this dimmed "the light of witness to Christ's presence in your country." He urged "the laity of New Zealand - and in a special way the young people - to remain faithful to the celebration of Sunday Mass".
The Holy Father called on New Zealand's bishops, notably in their pastoral letters, "to continue to ensure that your statements clearly convey the whole of the Church's magisterial teaching," including on such areas as the "sanctity and uniqueness" of marriage and family.
Spouses, he said, "rightly deserve specific and categorical legal recognition by the State, while any attempt to equate marriage with other forms of cohabitation violates its unique role in God's plan for humanity."
With continuing pressures in many Western countries for recognition of same-sex relationships as "marriages" or civil unions, it was important the Church take a lead in affirming the true meaning of marriage.
Like their Australian counterparts, the bishops of New Zealand have been challenged by the Pope to exercise strong leadership in confronting the erosion of faith among Catholics and countering secularist pressures on the Church.