BY MICHAEL VISONTAY
This week the Australian Catholic Media Congress was held in Sydney, with speakers lining up to extol the virtues of new media. One of the Vatican's most senior media advisers, Monsignor Paul Tighe, said new technologies can be used to debunk suspicion about the church. "They enable the forming of community, they have extraordinary potential for the wellbeing of the church," he told the conference.
Many in the Catholic community are wary of new media, finding it foreign and confusing. For those who have not been forced to use it in their workplace, the challenge of embracing digital formats often feels like too much hard work for little tangible benefit. More Friends on Facebook? “I already know my friends.” Post it on Twitter? “What can you write of any substance in just 140 words, let alone 140 characters?”
Yet just last week, on a quick visit to New Zealand, I discovered a story of how, more than 150 years ago, the Church embraced new media with a zeal and passion that breathed new life into a whole culture, and transformed the lives of thousands of people.
In the small town of Russell in the Bay of Islands at the top of the North Island is a beautiful property called Pompallier House, named after Jean Baptiste Pompallier, the first vicar apostolic to visit New Zealand, who founded a number of missions on the island.
Bishop Pompallier led a Marist mission of Western Oceania in the 1830s and set up their headquarters in Russell, which at the time was a popular trading port and had access to other islands.
The new mission displeased the existing Anglican mission and the British resident, James Busby, who feared colonisation by the French. But Bishop Pompallier established good relations with the Maori and attended negotiations for the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. To ensure the Church’s right to remain in the country, he asked for “free tolerance in matters of faith”. He succeeded; the Treaty contained an article guaranteeing all New Zealanders the right to spiritual freedom, including Maori.
Bishop Pompallier saw that the Maori did not have a written language, only a spoken one. He decided that the best way to preserve their language and culture, and educate them more generally, was to print books with Maori hymns and prayers (not Catholic ones). With the excitement of a new media - books - the Missionaries would teach the Maori how to read and write.
The year after the Treaty was signed, work began to build the Mission building, with a printing press and machinery sent over from France. The building also housed a tannery for book-binding. In 1842, the Mission produced its first Maori translations of religious texts.
From 1842-49 the original French press printed over 30,000 books and tracts, some of the first in Maori. After the mission left Russell in 1850, the Maori asked for the press and Bishop Pompallier gifted it to them. The press was used by the Maori King to print the Maori-language newspaper Te Paki o Matariki.
Today, 170 years on, the Pompallier Mission is noteworthy for several reasons: it is New Zealand's oldest Roman Catholic building and also its first factory of any kind. It now operates as a museum, with a working printing press and tannery, and a rich display of examples of how the press and bookbinding operations work.
Beyond the physical legacy, however, the Mission stands as a reminder of what can be achieved when goodwill and clear communication can harness the power of new media. As we grapple with Facebook and Twitter, the Church should remember how it utilised another new media all those years ago.
Michael Visontay is editor in chief of CathNews.
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