The national assembly of diocesan priests held in Christchurch this month is being hailed as probably the best such assembly to date, but the gathering was tinged with sadness.Some 185 priests gathered this year in Christchurch from September 10-14 for the assembly, which is held every five years (previous gatherings were in Blenheim (twice) and Rotorua). But Msgr Patrick Ward from Auckland suffered a stroke on September 9 while in Christchurch and he died on September 12.

Assembly organising committee chair Msgr Paul Farmer told NZ Catholic that Msgr Ward was a well-known and much loved priest and his passing came as a shock to everyone at the gathering.

Msgr Farmer said it was a blessing that Msgr Ward had been able to visit family members in Christchurch before suffering the stroke from which he never regained consciousness.

“The priests were very sad but they embraced him and we continued to keep him in our prayers and in our hearts throughout the assembly until he died in the early hours of Wednesday morning.

“On Thursday evening we brought him back to the Church of Christ the King at Burnside for our final Mass. There were 185 priests there — Cardinal John [Dew] presided at the Mass. It was also an opportunity for his family and their friends and the parishioners there who knew Pat so well to have a funeral for him in Christchurch. It was a wonderful occasion. The parish church was full. I don’t think Pat could have imagined such a send-off.”

A vigil Mass and funeral Mass were later celebrated in Auckland.

Speaking of the assembly itself, which had the theme “Being a priest today in a time of unprecedented change”,  Msgr Farmer said the feeling he received from those present was that this was the best such gathering they had attended.

“The spirit was extraordinary, absolutely extraordinary. There was a wonderful
gathering and I think those who attended enjoyed it thoroughly.”

Msgr Farmer also praised the quality of the speakers who addressed the priests during the assembly. Bishop Vincent Long van Nguyen of Parramatta, Australia, was “absolutely  extraordinary, how he talked about the Church today and connected it to the exile of the Jews, and how we need to be challenged to change if we are going to be effective in the world in which we are living. He made it very clear that the time of Christendom has now closed, and we are living in a very different kind of world. And the Church must reform itself, it must renew itself, change a lot of its attitudes and ways if it is to be at all relevant in the 21st century and beyond”.

Other speakers were broadcaster Mike Yardley who delivered an emotional address about his own experience of the 2011 earthquake and the subsequent rebuild and Anglican Archbishop Sir David Moxon, a former representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Vatican, who delivered an after-dinner speech in which he spoke of “the ordinary human ways of Pope Francis, and [the] . . . variety of ways [in which] Pope Francis [is] being the parish priest of the whole world”. Both addresses were listened to very attentively, Msgr Farmer said.

But it wasn’t all work — there was plenty of time for fellowship. Every afternoon,
the priests “became tourists” and went off to enjoy different activities.

Among these were a trip to the Port Hills, bike riding (“for the younger guys”, Msgr
Farmer said), a catamaran trip and a visit to the Antarctic Centre, which was
“certainly the highlight”.

Masses were celebrated in the evenings at St Mary’s pro-cathedral and at Christ the King, Burnside.

The main reason for the assembly going to Christchurch was to support the bishops and the priests and people of Christchurch diocese, who have experienced the loss of churches, parishes and schools and the destruction of their cathedral.

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