Bishop Paul Martin SM (2018 – 2022)

Living next to the Marist priests’ house in Hastings, not far from the Marist seminary at Greenmeadows, the young Paul Martin felt “swamped” by Marist fathers. But in a good way. The friendly, active, faith-filled lives of the Society of Mary community members so impressed him that he could see himself living that life. He began training in the Marist Order as soon as he left high school, aged 17.

After 25 years as a priest, Father Paul was called to be the Bishop of Christchurch. Now, as he marks his first anniversary as bishop, he feels accepted and happy in the position.

He knew he was one of several priests being considered for the post but thought he was a rank outsider. Then, when the call came he accepted, though with a tinge of regret that, as an enthusiastic educator he would no longer be able to be fully involved in this work.

The tall, young bishop, who will be 52 in May, had a very Catholic upbringing. Parents Ron and Carmel Martin, and his close relatives, were devoted Catholics. Looking back, he says regular Mass, sacraments and other observances were an integral part of life for him and his younger siblings – Kevin, Denise, Chris and Maree.

Bishop Paul with his mother Carmel

His parents never talked to him about becoming a priest or exerted pressure. They didn’t need to. With Marist fathers running the parish, and with primary education at St Joseph’s School and secondary at the Marists’ St John’s College, the realisation of a vocation just came naturally.

A significant influence was his favourite teacher, Brother Matthew Morris. Bishop Paul laughs to recall how helping him mark third form science tests taught him to love the Marist way of life – and to dislike science.

Even with such an upbringing, Bishop Paul’s youth was not without blemish. Asked what was the naughtiest thing he did, he owns up to sneaking into the kitchen in the school hall and taking a sip from a winebox in the staff fridge.

This tiny misdemeanour was well outweighed by the worthiest thing he did. As a senior boy at St John’s College, he joined the Antioch youth group that guided younger teens in the Faith at weekend camps.

This activity sparked his love of teaching, just as watching the Marists at Hastings and Greenmeadows sparked his wish for a community-based life.

“The priests were good men, an eclectic bunch,” Bishop Paul says. He left school after five years of secondary and joined them.

His colleagues were men of diverse interests and Bishop Paul pursued a range of pastimes too: reading, swimming, squash, badminton and movies. He disappointed his cricket-mad father by avoiding the great game. And though a strapping lad who could leap high in the lineouts and snare the ball, he reckons he lacked the drive to go far in rugby.

Bishop Paul spent his first year as a Marist at the Society of Mary’s house in Wellington. There he began study at Victoria University, in tandem with priestly formation. He next returned to Greenmeadows for five years seminary studies, then went back to Wellington in 1990 to complete his BA degree, studying full-time and majoring in English.

After graduating in mid-1991, he had the opportunity to work at an Aboriginal mission in Australia’s Northern Territory for the rest of that year. Further training followed and Paul was ordained a priest by Bishop Peter Cullinane in September, 1993. The ordination took place in Hastings, but in the St John’s College gym as the local parish church had been destroyed by fire.

He could have been labelled “The Peripatetic Priest” as he moved frequently from post to post. First he served in the Maori pastoral mission at Rawene, in the Hokianga area of Northland, until the end of 1993. The following year he did his teacher training at the Auckland College of Education

He began teaching at Pompallier College, a co-educational Catholic high school in Whangarei, in 1995. In 1999 he was transferred to St Bede’s College, Christchurch, to teach English and religious education. In 2002 he moved to Hato Paora College, Feilding, as chaplain. A year later he was switched to parish work, at the Parish of St Mary and all Angels, in Wellington.

Then it was “back to school”, as he took a teaching post at St Patrick’s (Town) in Wellington. Only two years on, he was posted again to St Bede’s in 2006, this time as Deputy Rector. Two years later he was appointed Rector of St Patrick’s (Town).

Bishop Paul must have impressed fellow teachers as he was appointed to the Teachers’ Council Competency Advisory Group and was elected President of the Wellington Secondary Schools Principals’ Association. He served also on the Wellington Archdiocese Board of Administration.  

Having to give up classroom teaching for administration was “a great wrench” for Bishop Paul. In 2014 he was assigned to the roles of Assistant Provincial and Provincial Bursar of the Society of Mary in New Zealand, based in Wellington. In 2016 he was appointed Bursar-General of the world-wide Society of Mary, based in Rome.

Bishop Paul outside the Pope’s holiday house in Castel Gandolfo

“The whole experience” of living in Italy for two years was most enjoyable, he says. Still, he was happy to be coming home in 2017. He felt some apprehension about the call to become Bishop of Christchurch as he had never considered that he would be a bishop and what that would entail.

Being a bishop has brought a change to his level of participation in the Marist Order, though he determinedly remains a member. While he is no longer bound by the Order’s rules and duties, he still “feels” a Marist. He stresses the letters SM (Society of Mary) will always remain after his name. He enjoys the friendship of other Marists in the country and senses they are happy to see the first Marist priest made a residential bishop in New Zealand for a century.

Nearly 1500 people attended his consecration in the Christchurch Boys’ High School hall a year ago. Cardinal John Dew of Wellington led the liturgy, which all the New Zealand bishops attended.

Bishop Paul’s ordination on Saturday 3 May, 2018

After a year in Christchurch Bishop Paul feels very much at home. He has visited parishes throughout Canterbury and the West Coast and hopes to reach the Chatham Islands soon. He recognises the issues confronting him, notably the future of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. A decision on “this beautiful space”, so badly damaged in the 2010-2011 earthquakes, should be made public fairly soon, he says.

Another issue is the perceived shortage of priests. “Perceived” because, Bishop Paul points out, in the context of history the diocese is as well supplied with priests now as in most of its past. He notes the large increase in priest numbers in the post-World War II years as extraordinary.

The challenge is around the number of parishes and the capacity to staff them well. This means providing all the pastoral support and liturgical needs required.

Today, too, the image of the priest on his own working in a parish is not so attractive for vocations, he says. One option is to create small groups of priests serving larger geographical areas, something the Bishop is considering.

Bishop Paul believes also that Catholicism and all of Christianity are seen at a low ebb these days. But his faith remains strong.

“I have no doubts about the evidence of God. I have tasted God. I am very aware of God’s presence,” he says, adding: “This is not an easy time to be a Christian or a Catholic”.

Bishop Paul foresees the growth of secularism, consumerism and mental stress leading to more people searching for God. He wants the Church to be welcoming and ready to offer these people the way to God.

Other pressing issues include women’s roles in the Church and abuse of children. In all cases, he says, the Church must remember that God is the ideal we must aim for, even if we slip from time to time.

The Church has had its ups and downs over the ages, our bishop says. He could have added, we have all slipped and sipped from the winebox in the school hall fridge.

In January 2021 Bishop Paul was appointed Coadjutor Archbishop of Wellington, and he remained the Apostolic Administrator of Christchurch until the appointment of Bishop Michael Gielen, as 11th Bishop of Christchurch.

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Michael Crean. Photographs from the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch and Bishop Paul’s private collection.

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