Former Christchurch Bishop John Cunneen dies

10 Nov 2010 | GENERAL INTEREST

Bishop Emeritus of the Catholic Diocese of Christchurch, John Cunneen, died peacefully on 9 November at Nazareth House, aged 78, after a long period of illness.

The Requiem Mass for Bishop Cunneen will be celebrated on Wednesday 17 November at 11.00am, at St Mary's Church, 373 Manchester St.

Christchurch Bishop, Barry Jones, said ill health never altered Bishop Cunneen’s enthusiasm or faith.

“I remember his cheerfulness, patience and good humour when he was struck down suddenly by a stroke in 2003,” said Bishop Jones. “His faith and trust in God never wavered and he recovered well for a time until his health declined in recent years”.

Bishop Cunneen was born in Christchurch on 5 May 1932. He was educated at St Joseph’s Primary School in Ashburton and St Bede’s College in Christchurch. For his priesthood training he attended Holy Name Seminary in Riccarton (1947-1950); Holy Cross Seminary in Mosgiel (1951-1952) and All Hallows College in Dublin (1952-1956).

He was ordained a priest by Bishop Edward Joyce in Ashburton on 8 July 1956. He served as a priest at a number of parishes including the Chatham Islands, Timaru North, Rangiora, Oxford, Dallington, the Cathedral, Addington, Bishopdale and Burnside. He was also highly involved with Christchurch’s Samoan Community.

He was ordained bishop on 30 November 1992 and appointed Bishop of Christchurch on 15 December 1995. His health declined after a sudden stroke in July 2003, which resulted in three months’ hospitalisation. He retired as Bishop of Christchurch on 5 May 2007.

When he was first ordained bishop he was Auxiliary Bishop of Christchurch (under Bishop Basil Meeking) and Titular Bishop of Annaghdown. He was a participant at the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for the Churches in North, Central and South America. In 1995 he was appointed by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Council “Cor Unum” – the agency of the Holy See responsible for the Church’s charitable activities.

New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference President, Archbishop John Dew of Wellington, spoke today of Bishop Cunneen’s long involvement in ecumenism.

“He was Conference Deputy for ecumenism for more than a decade, and led the New Zealand Catholic Church’s involvement in the Anglican-Catholic Bilateral Dialogue,” he said.

“Bishop Cunneen was a very pastoral man and brought that into his work in ecumenism at the national level”.

In 2006 Bishop Cunneen celebrated his Golden Jubilee of priesthood, and in 2007 a Thanksgiving Mass was held for him. He delivered a homily at the Mass, in which he described his calling to the priesthood as a Form 3 boarder at St Bede’s College.

“Sixty one years ago... I was in this beautiful Cathedral for a rally of the Holy Name Society. Bishop Lyons...announced that the four New Zealand bishops had purchased a property in Riccarton Road. They invited the Australian Jesuits to staff there a minor seminary, a national secondary school for possible prospective priests. I believe that occasion was important for me hearing the call of the Good Shepherd to consider that the Lord might want me however unworthily to come a priest”.

At the same Mass, Bishop Jones gave examples of Bishop Cunneen’s outstanding contribution to priesthood, and described how so many people had found in him a “kind listener” and a “ready helper”.

“I think of the times I rang your home not ever knowing who would answer the telephone because of the remarkable hospitality which has always marked your life”, he said to Bishop Cunneen.

He went on to say, “Think too of the many hours you have sat at meetings, caring for the affairs of the Diocese, pastoral and spiritual affairs, finances, property, maintenance, legal matters, and the demands of education. I think it’s exactly true to say that only God could know how many hours you have given in his service as a bishop”.

He finished by thanking Bishop Cunneen for his “courageous witness” since his health began to deteriorate.

“With great determination and constancy, you have continued to grace gatherings of all kinds with your presence, your wisdom, your words of faith, even though the exertions involved in getting to functions, alighting from vehicles, climbing steps and stairs, and walking from one place to another, were considerable,” he said.

He described an occasion where he watched Bishop Cunneen signing documents with his other hand because he could no longer use his writing hand, and the great effort that had gone into the longhand draft of the night’s homily. “That effort is a moving example of how simply you bear witness to the joy and faith that has made you an indomitable shepherd of the Lord’s flock”.

Bishop Jones remembers Bishop Cunneen as a “courteous and amiable soul, who always found good in persons,” and who was “most compassionate and gentle and had a great way of reaching out to persons for whom life had become difficult or who had made bad decisions”.

“I remember well travelling with him to the West Coast once, and we stopped for refreshments at Arthurs Pass. While he was sitting at his table drinking coffee a long queue formed of persons wanting to talk to him. Wherever he went, people would call out to him”.