Theological Imaginings: New Foundations in Mercy
Dennis Horton (Aotearoa New Zealand)
The Whanganui River, New Zealand’s third-longest, now enjoys legal personhood status. It is Māori respect for all creation that secured this world-first status for the river, seen here as it flows past the small village of Hiruharama (Jerusalem).
Photo credit – Howard Rawson. Used with permission

Covid-19 has taught us, like nothing else in human experience, that we are all vulnerable. Recalling Mercy’s founder, who reached out to the victims of Dublin’s cholera epidemic so soon after her Congregation had been founded, we have had to reflect deeply on how Mercy might respond in this moment of worldwide vulnerability.

What does it mean for us to be a source of strength and healing in our communion with all creation? Committed as we are to care for our common home, how should we stand with the displaced and model a world of welcome and inclusion? How will our Mercy charism and our global presence give us the energy for an earth that is in such need of God’s compassion and mercy?

Even as borders are protected and we seek to isolate ourselves from the global pandemic, we sense the call to make others safe, to reach out in expanding circles of Mercy  from the conviction that together we can do more, act better and more wisely , than we ever could on our own.

Living down under, where distance confers both isolation and a sense of security, we rejoice in the courage of our Mercy pioneers who brought the spark of Catherine’s vision to the other side of the world, even to what historian Michael King, in the title of his account of Catholics in New Zealand, has called ‘God’s Farthest Outpost’ (Penguin, 1997).

New Zealanders can understand why English poet and story-teller Rudyard Kipling, in a poem to celebrate cities he visited around the world, described Auckland as ‘last, loveliest, loneliest, exquisite, apart.’ Many of them grow up waiting for the ‘great OE’ or overseas experience, a rite of passage from this remote Pacific nation aimed at opening their eyes to the larger world. But lots of them return to Aotearoa, land of the long white cloud, knowing this is the place that truly identifies them and allows them to stand tall.

Land confers sense of identity

It is the land – te whenua – which gives Māori, New Zealand’s first people, their sense of identity. They will greet those they meet with details of their closest mountain and river before giving their names. Māori are known as ‘tangata whenua’ – people of the land. Identity for Māori is secured by land and binds human relationships; in turn, people learn to bond themselves with the land. In the best of Māori tradition, land does not belong to people; people belong to the land.

No better illustration of this relationship is provided than the struggle of the Māori people of Whanganui, petitioning Parliament in the 1870s to have their links to their river officially recognised. They were finally successful in 2017, with a landmark decision conferring ‘legal personhood’ status on the Whanganui River, the third-longest river in New Zealand.

It was the first river in the world to gain the same legal protections as a human person, and the decision brought an end to a 150-year struggle. The Māori people of the region have a saying, ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’ – I am the river and the river is me. ‘...

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Spanish translation using DeepL Translator. Traducción al español con DeepL Translator

A lay partner of Ngā Whaea Atawhai o Aotearoa Sisters of Mercy New Zealand for more than 20 years, Dennis Horton currently serves as writer for the Congregation, producing a monthly newsletter tracking the development of a ministerial PJP for Mercy’s incorporated ministries into the future.

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