The Holy Sites of Europe and the Middle East are popular with New Zealand pilgrims, but there is much inspiration reinforcing our Catholic identity, here on our own soil.
In 2010, the North Island Road Retreat travelled from the Hokianga to Wellington, discovering the rich history of the Church, its missions old and new, its art, its people. We called ourselves retreatants because the journey was reflective, held in prayer and nurtured by friendship, good food and laughter.
In November 2011, there was a similar journey by bus in the South Island.
The South Island Road Retreat began in Nelson with Mass at Stoke, followed by a presentation on Mother Suzanne Aubert by Fr Maurice Carmody, who was leaving for Rome that same afternoon with the last section of the cause for her beatification. We had not expected Suzanne Aubert to accompany us, but her influence was threaded through the week.
While Fr Carmody was boarding his plane, we were on the West Coast, standing at the grave of Msgr Walshe, who was parish priest in Westport for 60 years. He was ordained by Bishop Pompallier, and guess who played the organ at his ordination?
Mother Aubert also took care of the weather for us. While the rest of the country was battered by wind and rain, she parted the clouds in front of the bus and closed them again behind it. There were golden days all the way to Invercargill. These days were framed by morning and evening prayers of Office, said in motels, churches and, twice, in the public bar of a hotel.
From the West Coast through Arthur’s Pass we went to Christchurch and Akaroa, to Dunedin, Queenstown, Invercargill and back to Dunedin. Every site visited brought a deeper understanding of our history, and even deeper gratitude to the early missionaries who embraced extreme hardship to bring the Catholic Faith to early settlers.
At Greymouth, Msgr O’Connor showed us an old marriage certificate, creased and stained. He told us of a priest who rode through rough country to marry a young couple. On the way back, his horse slipped in a river and the priest was drowned. Some time later his body was washed up on a West Coast beach, the marriage certificate in his pocket.
It’s not possible to detail the fullness of the week; but here are a few of the memories that stay with us: Mass at St Mary’s, Manchester St, an intact church surrounded by the destruction of the Christchurch earthquakes; the sweetness of prayer time with the Carmelite Sisters, and the old church at Akaroa with its prayer-soaked walls; time with Mary McKillop at Temuka, then later, at Arrowtown; the warm welcome at the Tui Motu office; the Polish Catholic church on the Otago peninsula; time near Invercargill on Sr Judith Robinson’s eco farm; and everywhere, abundant hospitality in parishes.
We warmed to the human side of the Church, the tales of rugby, racing and beer, and political manoeuvering. In a town called Cromwell, you’d have to be having a Church of the Irish Matyrs, now, wouldn’t you?
And then there’s the inscription under a stained glass window in the Dunedin cathedral: Pray for Mary Queen of Scots. It all gave us a delicious sense of belonging.
As for Suzanne Aubert, she came back with us. On our return, one of the retreatants was asked to write a children’s book about her.
Retreat organiser Patricia Parsons is planning another North Island Road Retreat for us near the end of 2012. Those interested can contact her: