Lay people are taking on priests’ former duties in the country’s largest diocese

New Zealand’s only cardinal, John Dew of Wellington, spoke at the recent World Meeting of Families on “The Future of the Irish Parish: Lessons from Abroad”. He described how his archdiocese has been dealing with the “severe” shortage of priests by appointing lay pastoral leaders.

These leaders are commissioned by the bishop to take on all priestly duties, except those that require an ordained priest, such as celebrating Mass. The programme has been running in Wellington since 2006.

While it is true that the number of priestly vocations in New Zealand is very low – with a yearly seminary intake of less than double figures – latest available statistics (from 2014) show that Wellington has the highest rate of priests per person compared with the five other dioceses of New Zealand.

It seems that the lay pastoral leaders programme is less a response to a crisis and more a next step in a long project that has dominated the Church in New Zealand for the last 60 years. After the Second Vatican Council, the hierarchy was gripped by a spirit of liturgical innovation. Reaching its peak in the 1990s – a decade of pottery chalices, tie-dyed stoles and baked loaves of bread at Mass – anti-traditional sentiments still run strong.

For decades bishops, leaders and seminary staff have promoted, pushed and even harshly enforced the practice of a horizontal, lay-dominated liturgy. One theologian commented that in the seminary there is still a “fear, a hang up, of anything that looks pre-Vatican II”. This attitude has been reinforced by the remnants of the religious orders (Dominicans, Josephites, Mercy Sisters and Marists), whose 1960s Catholic-Woodstock liturgical attitudes remain a strong influence in rural parishes and schools. As one priest observed, “There are very few parishes that would actually follow the Roman Rite.” Those that do, do well to keep quiet about it.

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