John Basil Meeking was born in Ashburton on the 19th of November 1929. He attended St Joseph’s Catholic School in Ashburton, and his family moved to Kaikoura in 1938. Influenced by the religious in his home parishes, (clergy and Sisters of Our Lady of the missions) he studied Latin and regularly served Mass.
He was put forward for a scholarship and completed his secondary schooling at St Bede’s College, Christchurch. It was always assumed he would enter the seminary, despite his own leanings to be a teacher. He entered the seminary at Holy Cross College, Mosgiel, in 1947, having being encouraged and interviewed by Bishop Lyons, and was ordained for the Christchurch Diocese at St Paul’s Church in the Christchurch Parish of Dallington, in 1953. His first Mass was held at the chapel at St Bede’s.
A deep-thinking man of slight build and scholarly mien, Fr Meeking nevertheless threw himself into the duties connected with building projects at parish and diocesan levels in a time of substantial growth in the Church. Following three months as an assistant priest at the Cathedral Parish, he was appointed to the south-Christchurch parish of Beckenham and St Martins. In the mid-1950s he was deeply involved in the building of new churches at both places. Then it was back to the Cathedral Parish, from where he served as chaplain to Christchurch Hospital and to the Catholic Nurses’ Guild from 1959 to 1963. He became secretary of the Hospital Chaplains Council. He worked on the Christchurch New Church Research Group.
After 10 years as a priest he headed to Rome for advanced studies towards a doctorate degree. On the way to Rome, in late 1963, he visited the USA, England, Ireland and France. He graduated Doctor of Divinity at the University of St Thomas, Rome, in 1966 and returned to New Zealand.
He would not be long in New Zealand though. While serving as administrator of parishes at Kaiapoi, Methven and Bryndwr consecutively, from 1966 to 1969, he remained prominent in the field of ecumenism. He became the Catholic representative on the National Council of Churches and a consultor to the Secretariat for Unity, in Rome. His work in these duties led to a call for him to return to Rome. There he was appointed an official of the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. He later became secretary to the organisation.
In Rome Fr Meeking continued to rise in prominence. In 1976 he was honoured with the designation of Chaplain to the Holy Father. He was made a Prelate of Honour in 1982. By then he was secretary of the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches.
With such a background and the prospects of further service in Rome, he might have declined the invitation to return to New Zealand. It may be a measure of his humility that, advised of his selection as the next Bishop of Christchurch, he accepted it as his calling. Bishop Basil’s episcopal ordination and installation as seventh Bishop of Christchurch were celebrated in the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament on the 3rd of June 1987.
However, the pressures of work took a toll on the bishop and to ease the burdens he faced, he appointed fellow Ashburton priest Fr John Cunneen as his pastoral assistant in 1990. Two years later, Fr Cunneen was consecrated as Auxiliary Bishop for the diocese. In February 1996, Bishop Basil retired from his diocesan leadership role. He retained the title of Bishop Emeritus, while Bishop Cunneen succeeded him as Bishop of Christchurch.
In a letter to all Catholics, explaining his retirement, Bishop Basil admits “the episcopal ministry in this diocese….has taken its toll”.
He further writes: “Therefore I am grateful that the Holy Father has agreed to let me give up the weight of responsibility that goes with the office.” He lists the heavy demands on him as: “shepherding the flock, keeping it together in unity, nourishing it with sound teaching, protecting it from error and harm, supporting those who are in need.”
During his episcopate, Bishop Basil established Good Shepherd House in Christchurch. This institution provided pre-seminary courses to young men considering a vocation to the priesthood.
After retiring, he took leave to study and meditate in a Benedictine monastery in France, in 1996. His sense of humour showed, with his claim that he just wanted to get out of the way of Bishop Cunneen, who had succeeded him as Bishop of Christchurch.
He served in chaplaincy positions in various institutions in the USA. Returning to Christchurch he resumed some chaplaincy service, notably with the Carmelite Sisters whom he always held in the highest regard. He provided support to the diocese in many ways in his retirement. He wrote for various publications on a range of themes, showing in particular his interest in Church liturgy and tradition.
Regarded by many as an engaging and witty conversationalist, the last word is best left with Bishop John Cunneen who spoke of Bishop Basil’s “profound theological understanding, deeply pastoral heart and unflagging dedication to the service of the Church in the diocese”.
Bishop Meeking, aged 90, passed away at Christchurch Hospital on 11 June 2020 after a period of ill-health.
Mike Crean, contributor
Catholic Diocese of Christchurch Archives Photographic Collection