I was invited to attend the awards night for Sacred Heart College in Lower Hutt, New Zealand, recently. This has been a big year for the school as it celebrated its centenary. The college has also played its part in the wider celebrations marking 150 years of the Sisters of Our Lady of the Missions (RNDM), which also happened this year. The Columbans and the Mission Sisters have many deep and cherished connections. One major point of connection has been through the Columban Mission Institute when it was in Turramurra (North Sydney). Over the years many Mission Sisters studied there as part of their orientation to mission. I had attended many award ceremonies in my time as chaplain to two Catholic Girls Colleges in Sydney (Our Lady of Mercy College in Parramatta and Loreto College in Normanhurst) but this was my first in New Zealand.
My first impression was that this event had many of the aspects of a liturgy – there were special forms of dress (academic gowns), there was music including a couple of hymns, various “words” were proclaimed and responded to and there was an engaged assembly. Though it made no claim to be in any way a Eucharistic event or even a specifically religious event, I believe Christ was really present with the school community in this celebration. The values of the College were proclaimed, and the community responded by honoring the students who had excelled in promoting the life of the College as well as in the academic and sporting arenas and the arts.
In Sydney such events start with the acknowledgement of the traditional peoples of the place where the school is located. Here it takes the form of a powhiri, a Maori welcome that sent a tingle down my spine. In this way the first peoples of this place are acknowledged. In her address the College principal, Lisl Prendergast, continued that recognition by opening her speech in Maori. Respect for the culture, traditions, language and history of peoples has sometimes been lacking in the missionary history of the church but there have also been many wonderful examples of positive engagement with them that have shaped how the missionaries of today seek to operate.
The moment that made the deepest impression on me was when outgoing deputy head girl, Ngarangi Williams, was honored for her contribution to all things Maori. The response in the form of a waiata (song/dance) from some of her companions was just electrifying. The pattern of liturgy is meant to be one of proclamation and response, but it is rare in church liturgies to see a response to any proclamation as powerful and moving as this one.
When I went to the awards night I did not expect to find myself thinking about liturgy and especially the pattern of proclamation and response that runs right through our Eucharistic celebrations. Maybe I should have expected it as rituals are an essential part of how we do most things in life and how we celebrate the important moments and occasions. It was another reminder of the connection that needs to be there between liturgy and life.