Michael Fitzsimons talks with the new bishop of Palmerston North about his dramatic conversion of the heart and his hopes for a church of urgency and vitality.
Bishop John Adams, the new 59-year-old bishop of Palmerston North, comes to the role with a vivid sense that God works in mysterious and at times deeply disturbing ways.
I ask him where it all began for him and he takes us way back:
‘I don’t mean to be taking the spiritual high ground straight away, but there’s a beautiful sense for all of us people of faith that we have been in the mind of God before the creation of the world. We are knit together in our mother’s womb, as the psalmist says. There’s something beautiful about that.’
Rather more immediately, Bishop John was the oldest child in the family. His father left school at the age of 12 because of financial pressure and shined shoes in Courtenay Place, Wellington. In time he became an excellent snooker player, becoming Wellington professional champion in his early 20s.
‘He went on to play snooker for New Zealand. He played Jimmy White in the first round of the 1980 world amateur championships, on live Australian TV. Dad won the first frame. There’s a little claim to fame for our family.’
His mother had quite a different trajectory in life. She spent five years training to be a religious sister and left just before final vows. She came to Wellington and met John’s father who was hustling snooker for a living, ‘winning and losing large amounts of money every day’.
The family returned to Christchurch where John went to state primary schools and onto St Bede’s College. He drifted into Canterbury University, where he did a science degree based on subjects that didn’t have lectures on Mondays or Fridays! He enjoyed snooker, drank plenty of beer and led a typical student life. Science degree completed and not knowing what to do with his life, he headed to London in pursuit of adventure.
‘I travelled Europe extensively. I did parachute-jumping, sang for the London Choral Society and played a reasonable quality of cricket. I did a motor racing course at Brands Hatch. I arrived back in the mid 80s, still not knowing what on earth I was going to do with my life.’
After a stint working for a big manufacturer in Christchurch, he headed to Christchurch Teachers College. As a teacher, he discovered he had an aptitude for teaching in the special education field and ended up working with children with behavioural problems. His only significant connection with Church life at this time was as a member of the Catholic Cathedral Choir in Christchurch.
‘My love of the great choral tradition of the Catholic Church was developed there, but my faith remained tepid at that time. My primary motivation for attending Mass was my love of singing.’
All that however was about to change dramatically when he signed up for the Catholic summer school, Hearts Aflame, held at St Pat’s College Silverstream.
‘That was the year when I woke up mysteriously to my faith. I thought the Church was irrelevant, behind the times and somewhat dull. But after Hearts Aflame I realised that I was irrelevant, behind the times and dull. In fact the Church was very beautiful and she had something absolutely profound to say to the world. I really had an intellectual conversion at Hearts Aflame.
‘My life at that stage was going along a predictable path. I was going out with a nice girl, had just bought a house in Christchurch and had been offered a job promotion. But after Hearts Aflame, such was the power of my waking up that I realised I was going to give all that away and perhaps become a priest.’
‘It was a very strong conversion. I was as shocked as anyone. I had the unusual feeling that this was somewhat inevitable and yet I hadn’t chosen it.’
And so, led by an invisible hand, he found himself knocking on the door of Bishop John Cunneen. ‘All the priests I’d ever met seemed to be grumpy and unhappy people. And yet, there I was about to join them. I later came to learn that priests are in fact joyful and generous people.
‘Bishop John said, “why do you want to be a priest?” I said, “I don’t know, I’d rather get married and have children.” He sent me to a psychologist.
‘The psychologist said, what do you want to do with your life? I said, well, I guess I’ll get married, have children, I’ve got a house, I’m going out with a nice girl. I thought that was the answer for not going to the seminary but in fact it was the correct answer for going to the seminary. The best priests might make the best husbands and fathers. I hope that’s the case and so I found myself in the national seminary. That was my journey.’
Painful twists and turns lay ahead for the future priest and bishop. As it turned out, he did take on the role of tour manager for the choir and orchestra as the tour coincided with the seminary holidays. On tour ‘I met who I thought was the girl of my dreams. It was a marvellous time for me and I ended up coming back from that overseas tour, convinced that all along I’d been called to family life.’
He went to talk with Bishop Cunneen and together they decided that while his vocation was still an open question, he would go back to the seminary for six months and finish his theology degree.
‘I did a postgraduate degree in theology but during that six months my life turned to absolute custard. I couldn’t get out of bed in the morning, couldn’t go to sleep at night, couldn’t stand the company of other people, couldn’t stand my own company, stopped eating.
‘I was in no man’s land. Instead of going to spiritual direction once a month, I was going every week and crying like a baby. I was in a state of paralysis.’
It was in the midst of this crisis, in his fifth year at the seminary, that he realised he had never actually said ‘yes’ to God’s call, he had never actually responded.
‘I hadn’t made an act of the will, a classical insight from Thomas Aquinas. I hadn’t actually decided that this was actually what I was going to do, so everything fell apart that year.
‘When you are reduced to that sort of state – someone who’s reasonably confident and able – it is very humbling. Looking back on it, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. It wasn’t quite St Paul falling off his horse, but it was something like that.’
‘A beautiful, joyful life’
And so he stayed the course as a seminarian and spent a year with Fr Steve Lowe [now Bishop of Auckland] in Timaru. His faith strengthened and grew. He had a conversion of the heart, not just of the intellect, which led him to ordination day and ‘a beautiful, joyful life’ as a priest.
He has worked in a number of parish ministries in the Christchurch diocese. All the priests he has been put with have had a certain genius, he says. Parishes have included Riccarton Greymouth, Burnside, Papanui and most recently Rangiora.
‘My time at Rangiora has been a marvellous time of parish renewal. I think I’ve finally learnt what it is to be a leader. I’ve had some coaching in leadership and I’ve seen the possibilities of parish renewal. I’m really excited about it.’
So what model of leadership can we expect from the new bishop of Palmerston North?
‘A collaborative model of leadership,’ he says. ‘But the point I would make about collaborative leadership is it’s not about divesting oneself of the legitimate authority that’s been entrusted to you. It’s about recognising where your weaknesses are and operating out of the team.’
And what are his priorities as Bishop?
‘At a fundamental level, to remind people that we are custodians of the greatest love story ever told and that ought to instil in us a certain joy and confidence. I think the Church in New Zealand lacks a certain confidence and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
‘The other thing I’m keen to explore in this diocese is the reality of parish renewal.
‘I see three keys to parish renewal. One – the primacy of evangelisation, the move away from a maintenance model to a missionary one. Two – greater docility to the Holy Spirit, greater acceptance of the charismatic nature of the Church. And three, let’s foster the best of leadership. Let’s seek out our leaders, let’s train them, let’s set them loose in the parish environment.
‘In the parish in Rangiora where I have been until a few weeks ago, we’re running leadership training for around 40 people. We’re spending our money on getting in professional leadership coaches. A parish with 10, 20, 30 leaders who want to do something great for the Church, that’s a great parish to be a priest in. That’s really exciting.
‘There are disappointments of course and mis-hits, you know. It’s a pretty toxic culture out there when you’re trying to spread the Gospel. I think I’m realistic about the reality of the mission fields.’
There’s no longer any space for lukewarm Catholicism, says Bishop John.
‘It’s got to be vital. It’s got to be fed out of the great spiritual traditions of the Church, which has watered the seeds of faith for 2,000 years. It also has to be a Church that’s reasonably clear and unafraid of its identity. Acquiescing to the culture is no answer – there are plenty of groups who have tried that and they’ve been decimated. So I’ve got no problem with the Church being distinctive.
‘I think we’ve been rather too captured by the thought of being relevant. The Church is in the world, but she’s not of the world. That’s a difficult dynamic, by the way. I’m not meaning to sound clichéd about it. I think the Church is in a transition from a rather untested Catholicism which has not stood up well to the rigours of modern society.’
‘The other thing I’d say is we’re now leaving the age of Christendom and we’re moving forward into an apostolic age where the Church is going to have to be more urgent.
‘I’ve been rather captured by the Divine Renovation movement which is about getting out there and preaching the Gospel. There are two great commissions of course. “Do this in memory of me” which I think, as best we can, we do adequately. But the other great commission is to go out and make disciples, baptising them in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit. I think we’ve been rather remiss there.
‘The last thing I want to concede to you, at heart I’m a conservative theologically. For instance, because of a pastoral situation in Christchurch a few years ago, I started saying the old Latin Mass. I’m not sure that this necessarily is the way of the future, but I discerned that there was a pastoral need there and I wanted to provide for and experience for myself that sense of continuity with the past.
‘So in my parish in Rangiora, once a fortnight we had the Latin Mass, and we also had charismatic praise and worship. I’m excited by that Catholic breadth.
‘The big word at the moment is inclusion, but it tends to only go one way. Traditional Catholics have a terrible time of it at the moment. There’s not much inclusion heading in that direction, it seems to me.
‘So that’s part of the recipe for the future. Let’s become truly Catholic again. Let’s be docile to the Holy Spirit. Let’s restore some of the beauty of the old liturgy. But let’s also be open to the charismatic gifts, prophecy, praying in tongues, words of knowledge, all those things. I don’t think it should be either or. We’ve been trapped into that thinking far too often.’
This post first appeared on Archdiocese of Wellington.