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NZ bishop who led earthquake ruins to parish renewal to spearhead Sydney conference

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Bishop John Adams at his installation as the bishop of Palmerston North. Photo: Supplied

Sydney Catholics are invited to meet the New Zealand priest, now bishop, who led his parish through the ruins of the New Zealand earthquakes. 

When it comes to spearheading talks at this year’s Parish Renewal Conference, who better than the man who watched his church reduced to rubble after the New Zealand earthquakes in 2011? 

“I was standing next to our triple unreinforced brick church which suffered the biggest of the earthquakes. I watched it fall into the adjoining creek,” recalls Bishop John Adams, a man who knows more than most about the true definition of parish renewal.  

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Back in 2011, Bishop John was only three weeks into his new appointment as the priest of the largest parish in Christchurch, St Joseph’s in Papanui when it was hit by the major earthquake that claimed 185 lives. 

“We never got back inside it. I crept in and saved some statues. No one knows about it, because you weren’t supposed to go anywhere near those buildings.  

“You literally risked your life because the aftershocks were quite big, for quite a long time,” he recalls. 

But the real aftershocks were to be felt in the ensuing weeks as the death toll in his small parish mounted.  

“I buried a person a day for the next five days. I had just funeral after funeral after funeral,” he recalls. 

“When something happens, you surprise yourself. The adrenaline gets going and you really start just working faster and harder. And I was proud of my parishioners, from that point of view. 

“We delivered food parcels, people brought in their barbecues, we’d put them on the backs of trailers, and we’d go into the poor parts of Christchurch, and have a big cookout for the people trying to live in the streets.  

“It was a tremendous surge of goodness from the Catholic community,” said Bishop John. 

As a priest, Fr John Adams had a bold vision of nurturing a parish where evangelisation thrived. Photo: Supplied

Mass continued in a makeshift hall, with 1200 people present in a space built for 200. 

For seven years, the former teacher rolled up his sleeves and got on with the job of leading his parish. 

But while he rebuilt the exterior of his church, he felt something was amiss with the interior lives of his parishioners.  

“Our parish was treading water. People were happy. But there was no sense of urgency, there was no conversion,” Bishop John observed. He blamed himself.  

He wanted to make disciples and nurture a parish where evangelisation thrived.  

When he was reassigned to a smaller semi-rural parish in Rangiora, north of Christchurch, Bishop John saw a chance to start again.  

“It was an ageing parish in decline—declining number of baptisms, declining number of confirmations, declining first Holy Communions.” 

Over the next four years he began the “painfully slow process” of establishing a vision and mission for his parish, starting with creating an atmosphere of welcoming.  

And then he got tough. “I had to be bold,” he recalls. 

“We started doing things like on the night confirmation class started, the parents would drop their kids off for confirmation and we wouldn’t let [the parents] go home. They would go and do Alpha.  

“So, we not only sacramentalised the kids, but we evangelised the families.  

“Out of a parish of 500, we had 380 doing Alpha! Those doing Alpha were leading the next course. The parish started to catch on fire and the fruits started to come.” 

These are some of the key strategies the now third Bishop of Palmerston North will be sharing at the Parish Renewal Conference on 3 August. 

Photo: Mateus Campos Felipe

“I want my brother priests to know this is possible and it works. It’s about engagement and about creating ‘on ramps’, getting people on the ‘on ramps’ on that journey, I’m excited!” he said.  

Sr Anastasia Reeves OP from the Parish Renewal Team is excited about what Bishop John will bring to the conference.  

“This time a year ago Bishop John was a regular parish priest, leading transformation effectively but very humbly.  

“I think it will be a great gift to our local church for Bishop John’s experience and wisdom to be shared more widely.” 

To register for the Parish Renewal Conference go to Early bird prices close Friday 31 May. 

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