National Assembly of Diocesan Priests 2023

The 2023 National Assembly of Diocesan Priests was held in Rotorua from Monday 9 October to Friday 13 October.

Because of the pandemic, this was the first such assembly since the one held in Christchurch in 2018. The assembly allowed some 175 parish priests from most of the country’s 200 parishes across six dioceses to talk about their work and hear speakers on topical subjects.

Material from the Assembly was published on this page as it came to hand. It includes photographs of speakers, and a short precis of their presentations.

Notes of presentations by speakers 10 October

Archbishop Mark Coleridge
Ordained a priest in Melbourne 1974. Metropolitan Archbishop of Brisbane since 2012
Topic: Spirituality of Diocesan Priests in the 21st Century

I went to a diocesan seminary because I didn’t want to teach. I ended up teaching. Teaching is what I do best.

We have to be assured of what we do. What we teach as priests seems to be a nonsense to many people in Australia and New Zealand. The Gospels provide us with that reassurance we need.

The stories in the Bible are often unfinished. Why? The stories in the Bible have to be finished in places like Hamilton, Dunedin, Naenae, even Brisbane.
What does it mean to be a priest? Leadership isn’t as straightforward as it used to be.

Think of the papacy. If you see footage of Pope Pius XII [Pope 1939-58], look at the rituals surrounding the papal court and compare it with what happens with Pope Francis now. In between those two popes there has been a dismantling of the papal court, thank God.

It seems to me that these days we have to live as “a man between.” The diocesan priesthood today has to come from an in-between personality.

We have to live between being pilgrim and settler.

This is an Abrahamic moment. Abraham didn’t know where he was going. God told him to go, and he set out on a journey without a land and a child of his own. He begins the journey where the only one who knows where he is going is God.
We are heading into a future the shape of which is unclear. But the act of faith is that there is one who does know where it is all leading. We must keep our eyes and our ears on God. We have to be on the journey.
The false god always says “you just stay where you are.”

We need to turn all our wandering into journeys. Journeying is hard work, but it is going somewhere, to paradise, to the Garden.

The priest as pilgrim is someone who can say to all the wanderers, come on a journey.
The priest in a diocese is also a settler. The priest has a parish, and people are the community. We have to put down roots in a particular place, a parish.
Some of you move from parish to parish. You need to put down roots where you are as you journey from parish to parish.
That’s at the heart of what we consider to be spirituality.

Today we have fewer priests. That is a fact. We cannot sustain the current mode of provision of priests, with far fewer priests and fewer people.
The shortage of people is the real problem. There are far fewer people who identify with the Church or come to Mass.
People like our schools. They ask why are our schools full and our churches empty?
Institutionally we are diminished.

Another fact is the abuse crisis. It looms over everything. It’s been astounding to me how my life as a bishop has been swamped by the abuse crisis.
It’s corrosive in a unique way,

What has all this done to bishops and priests? We are almost afraid to look at the damage.

The administrative burden on priests has also become more complex. The spiritual vitality of the Church is largely found in our immigrant communities. The centre of gravity of the Church is passing to Africa, Asia and Latin America. We have a Pope from Argentina. It’s fasten your seatbelts time, we are going somewhere and there is no way back.

Father Vui Hoang
Assistant Priest Parish of New Plymouth, ordained as priest 2019.

Lewis Carrol wrote the story of Alice who fell down the rabbit hole into a fantasy world. She asked the Chesire Cat where to go, but she didn’t know where she was going. The cat said it didn’t matter.
Our priestly journey is similar to Alice’s. There is no finish lines. This journey is unique to each of us. We are inspired by people who have been there before us. The question is why do we need to journey with each other.

Judas became a traitor, but he was chosen by Jesus. His greatest sin was not his betrayal, but that he walked away from the community of the apostles.
As priests we are called to walk together, to walk with others. As priests we are the sons of the Holy Mother Church.

At our priestly ordination, we are born into a new family. We walk with our brother priests in our diocese.

In 1973 there were 23 priests in Taranaki. Now there are five and a half [six, with one part-time].
Because of fewer priests, our bonds as diocesan priests can be diminished by distance. We have to make a real effort to continue that bond.

As priests, our journey is among the People of God, not outside. People bring out our gifts and priestly identity. Without people, a diocesan priest loses his priestly identity.
The most precious thing we can offer the People of God is to be there with them,

Father Craig Butler
Parish Priest of Whanganui. Ordained as a priest 1995.

Jesus was an exemplar of how we can be. He spent much of his time with people, the rest in prayer.
There is so much going on in the world. One of the biggest distractions is the mobile phone. We all know people we have been talking to who keep looking at their phones. Jesus when he was with people was utterly with them, not distracted.

Our vocation as priests mirrors that of Jesus. He called his disciples “my friends.”
He tackled his Earthly ministry head on. He didn’t try to get around or go the other way.

Notes of presentations by speakers Wednesday 11 October

Archbishop Mark Coleridge

Archbishop Coleridge put up a photo of a daisy growing from tony ground. He took the photo in Italy, where the Australian bishops were going to their Ad Limina. He saw it as a thing of beauty and was fixated by it.

This is the time for a new surge in gospel energy. To reach out in new and imaginative ways we have never done before – a new evangelisation.

Such surges have happened at intervals over the Church’s 2000-year history, such as the start of the Church, the monasticism that came with the collapse of Western empire; then with St Francis of Assissi and with the Reformation which with all its traumas brough a great surge in gospel energy and created the Jesuits.

Imagination is part of evangelisation – doing stuff we’ve never done before.

Lay people may lead this new surge, not the priests, not the monks, surprise surprise.

The Australian Church was built on four pillars
Big Church
Big Presbytery
Big Convents
Big schools.
It was very powerful. Education was seen to be the way out of the Catholic ghetto in Australia. We Catholics were marginalised.
But that world is gone. We have to have the courage to say farewell to that which has served us so well. We have to move from maintenance to mission.
We have too many churches, too many Masses, too many parishes. Because the Church and parishes were built on the assumption that most Catholics would come to Mass. Now they don’t.
We still have structures based on those other times. What are the real facts on the ground now? We need to show a bit of apostolic integrity and take risks.

If I’ve learned one thing in Brisbane it’s that all kinds of people hate change. But it has to happen. You have to explain the reasons for decisions.
My own view is that we have to move to larger configurations of communities. I don’t mean amalgamations. It has got to be a grass-roots process.
We are doing it in rural areas in Australia where villages are vanishing.
In towns and cities we are talking about communities of communities where each community is respected, but drawn into a larger community.
The prime goal is to generate new possibilities for mission – otherwise all we are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic as we go out of business.

We have to move on beyond consumer Christianity, where going to church is like going to the supermarket once a week. Meeting people’s spiritual needs isn’t the full story. We have to move from a supermarket model to a wholesaler.
It’s part of synodality, which is mission.
The Holy Spirit is moving in new and powerful ways at this time,

The coming of Pope Francis to the papacy is part of that – the way he has freed himself from Papal Court protocols. Benedict was imprisoned by them.
We have to get beyond the culture wars, they are a dead end.
If we move towards a community of communities, we are going to have to move to another model of leadership as it’s not sustainable.
There is no abundance of clergy. We can’t sustain all the small parishes.

But we can’t have the Church without the priesthood and the episcopate. The priesthood must remain, but be resituated, taking its place in a leadership team. It implies a move from a hierarchical to charismatic leadership.

No every priest has received the charism of leadership, so perhaps they should not lead.

It was the preacher of the papal household, Cardinal Raniero Cantalamessa, who said that “ordination guarantees apostolic succession but not apostolic success”.
A leadership team may include lay people, a deacon, a consecrated religious.
A team gathered together and properly formed of people who have received a call and a commission.

We are going to have to focus on preparing people whose charism has been recognised into leadership teams.
We need to do this to empower our communities with a new surge of gospel engergies.
Where are they? In our schools, in our parishes. Think laterally, brothers.

Father Sherwin Lapaan
Parish Priest, St Marks Pakuranga. Ordained 2012.

My journey of faith was affected by my culture in the Philippines and also a western education in Manila.
My grandfather was educated and baptised by Belgian missionaries, and so was I.
Growing up I was taught we had to know our culture. I have brought my culture to New Zealand,

After discussions with Bishop Pat Dunn, we made St Marks a Mission Parish with a mission council not a parish council. It has a Mission Statement.
When I arrived I met parishioners who had been there for 25 and 30 years. They had lost their mission. The election billboards I am seeing for this election don’t offer a mission of what the parties would like to do for this country – they offer only temporary relief.
We needed something to excite the mission in the parish. So we started the Divine Renovation programme. We asked parishioners what they wanted for the parish, to say it in one or two words.

It’s a very multicultural parish with 60 cultures, 80 per cent of parishioners are migrants.
We made our mission “Your parish, your home.” When you call this parish your home, you accept responsibility to look after it. As a way to revitalise the parish.
The church has a Mimistry of the Foyer in its foyer to welcome people.
We have a parish app, and free wifi for online donations. We invested in live-streaming technology for Mass.
We believe a missionary parish needs a leader, not a manager, to lead change and innovation.


Bishop John Adams
Bishop of Palmerston North. Until last month Parish Priest St Peter Chanel Parish North Canterbury. Ordained 2003.

Topic: Chaos to Clarity – forming and casting a winning vision for parish renewal.

After 20 years of parish ministry, I was failing. I was managing decline.
This is my experience of parish renewal. St Peter Chanel Parish has four churches, two priests and two schools. We had 555 at Mass. Mass included a Latin Mass once a fiortnight.

Leadership. We have a senior leadership team which enabled me to flourish as a priest, not taken away from it. Members are appointed for a three-year term. People who would walk on cut glass to get to Mass. Every parish has them. We meet for two hours a week, at 7am on Tuesdays.
I used the Kickstart programme for Divine Renovation to put the team together.
I identified 40 parishioners having leadership to develop a culture of leadership in the parish.
We haggled for six months over a vision and mission – it’s not something you can download from the internet.
We wanted to move from a declining maintenance model that exists for its members to a mission model.
We wanted a church with people standing at Mass, with new converts, new baptisms, and we did it.

Mission: “A growing and thriving community of Christian faith, hope and love where everyone is welcome.”
We set goals that are measurable with short, medium and long goals, 10, 3 and 1 year.
We have six building blocks:
1: Leadership
2: Vision
3: Mission
4L Strategy
5: Structure
6: Ability to measure

Lots of children weren’t baptised, so we began baptism classes for children and numbers surged. Twenty-three adults have become Catholics.
Lots of visitors come to Mass now, so we have a Mass booklet that explains it.


Rebecca Taylor-Hunt
Director, Catholic Enquiry Centre

Our website is our shop window, for us and the Catholic Church.
I have been busy rewriting/remaking it for the last few months.

I came to Catholicism as a young adult. I had a secular upbringing. I came to the Church because the spirit guided me. I was drawn to the Church. I felt deeply. [applause]

We are definitely the Catholic Enquiry Centre. Catholic Discovery is our website.

What do we do? Proactively engage those who don’t know the Catholic Church; those who have lost faith; those who want to know more; and those who want to become Catholics.


Notes of presentations by speakers Thursday 12 October

Hannah and James van Schie
Hannah has just been appointed Director of Marist Laity. James is General Manager of the Diocese of Auckland. They married in 2011 at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Wellington and have three children, Mary, Patrick and John.

Topic: Our faith practice and life as a Catholic couple.

Hannah and James have put a plastic bag of little toys on each table. They asked all the priests to take them out and play with them during this session.

Hannah: All parents know that a toy is helpful for keeping children in the pews at Mass rather than running outside to climb the trees. We’re employing the same principle here today to keep you in this room.
Hannah described her background, growing up and meeting James at World Youth Day 2008 in Sydney.
Our son John is almost five and said his kindy friends didn’t go to church, but he did!

James: Many of the best qualities we’ve learned as mother and father we’ve learned from priests.
Hannah: Staying married requires commitment and courage. Being a priest requires commitment and courage too. For us, going to church requires wrestling a toddler and toys in the pews. We arrive late, we go outside with the toddler to go up a tree. It’s not what we thought Mass was.
One of the biggest threats to faith is apathy.
“Thanks for being here, you are doing a great job, keep going.”
People need to hear those words. The parent with a toddler; the person doing the PowerPoint at Vigil Mass; the person who put our bins out because we were away at this assembly today. When James met Pope Francis, that is all James said to the Pope.

James: Have you ever recently or ever been genuinely thanked for something? Or given encouragement to someone? Share that moment.”
No marriage can survive without connection and compassion.

At the end of their presentation, their children carried baskets of little scrolls around the conference room for each priest to take one.


Dr Therese Lautua and Lucienne Hensel
Sharing their experiences with the Synod of Bishops.

Therese completed her PhD in Theology in 2020 at Auckland University. In 2022 she was one of three New Zealanders who went to Melbourne to be part of the Oceania Discernment and Writing Group for the Synod process. She is a parishioner at St Anne’s, Manurewa. Lucienne is a pastoral ministry adviser with the Archdiocese of Wellington and helped coordinate the diocesan phase of the Synod. She is a member of the Institute foe World Evangelisation-ICPE Mission.

Therese said that relationality and synodality challenged us. In January, she went to Melbourne for the Oceania Synod process. Oceania is vast, covering a third of the Earth, and the issues of Australia and New Zealand were very different than the issues of Papua New Guinea or the many Pacific islands. There was a strong desire to complete a comprehensive document. Our Oceania document is important because it’s our region. Instrumentum Laboris (the Synod working document) and whatever comes form the Synod are international.

Lucienne said the Synod was not just about the Synod taking place in Rome at present. It’s not only theology – it’s spiritual, something to embrace in our hearts. It’s not an end in itself, we want it to grow as a mission. World Youth Day Lisbon this year was an example of synodality – all those young people journeying together.

At the end of their presentation, attendees broke out into small groups to participate in a Spiritual Conversation sharing experiences from the Assembly and listening to each other, aware of the presence and participation of the Holy Spirit.

Organising Committee

The National Assembly of Diocesan Priests was organised by a committee of six priests, one each from the six dioceses. They are pictured in the photo below, from left, Fr Michael Hishon (Dunedin), Pa Gerard Paterson (Hamilton), Fr Brian Carmine (Palmerston North), Fr Bill Warwick (Wellington), Fr Carlo Cruz (Auckland) and Fr Joaquin Camano (Christchurch).

A concluding statement from the organising committee is here.


Earlier article:

September 19: Archbishop of Brisbane Mark Coleridge (pictured below) will be one of the speakers at the week-long assembly of 170 Catholic priests to be held in Rotorua from October 9 to 13.  Read the details here.