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Fr Jean-Baptiste Comte to Fr Jean-Baptiste Petit-Jean, Wellington, 18 November 1845

Sent to Colin with a note from Petit-Jean to Colin dated 20 February 1846

Translated by Fr Brian Quin SM, December 2005

APM Z 208 18 November 1845 (2)

The Note

{In the top right hand corner of the first page are writing, in small writing, the following words by Father Petit-Jean}

20 February 1846

To the Very Reverend Father Superior General

The Reverend Father Comte consulted me about this letter, and my reply was that I did not advise him to send it to His Lordship, because of some circumstances, of several errors which I thought I noticed. I have even made some marks [signes] in the margin in order to remind myself of my observations. Then I learned that the same Father, who is very distant from me, had sent the letter to His Lordship before receiving my reply. I thought I should send this copy to the Very Reverend Father, only so that he will know of an entire document[1] no doubt carried to France by the Bishop, and of which he could present some extracts and take the opportunity to say that someone is lacking in respect for him and that someone is [emps – last part of word is cut out – empiète ? – encroaching on his functions][2]

Text of the Letter


New Zealand

Wellington, 18 November 1845

Father Comte to Father Petit-Jean

No. 3

Reverend Father

May the peace of Jesus Christ be with you. I hope you will not find it amiss that I am showing you a letter that I wrote to the Bishop in Sydney, dated the 15th of this month. This letter, in spite of its bitterness and its impolite expressions has been written with a good intention on my part. If what I say is true, you must support me, if you find it wrong, it will go no further. In any case, I ask you to give me your opinion.

My Lord,

Your circular as well as your letter No. 4 which I received on the 3rd of this month (November), and which shows me your great faith, your great love for the New Zealanders, your zeal for the Church, fills my heart with sadness.

It is certain, my Lord, that when your priests got to know the New Zealanders, the means used by the missionaries and the efficacy of those means on the masses,[3] they immediately understood that books were needed; not any sort of books, but books well written; dealing with matters, not in the style of St Thomas, but in the style of the Asiatic peoples. They wanted them, these books; they asked for them, they pestered you in every way. Everything was in vain. They then let things go, and what happened? What all the priests had foreseen, wanted to prevent, and would have prevented, I mean the ruin of the Catholic mission in New Zealand.

[p2] In 1840 you came to Akaroa; I recall it as if it were yesterday, that you said several times in the pulpit, in front of the whole colony and the people from the naval vessel, that you had thirty-three to forty thousand Maoris saying your prayers, that the Protestant missionaries had not set foot in the middle island[4] and that you wanted to make it Catholic.

It was probably as a result of that, that you then visited Otago, Moerangi [sic – Moeraki], Port Cooper.[5] At the same time, before your departure, I mean, when you were getting ready to go to France, you wrote to me from on board the Aube: “Let us try to firmly secure the territory we have gained; the missionaries[6] are working in vain; we have more Maoris than they.”

Yes, we had more Maoris then than the Protestants. How is it, then that today (1845) the Anglicans and the Wesleyans together have fifty thousand more than we? Forty thousand Maoris say the prayers of the Anglican Church, sixteen thousand those of the Methodists, and six thousand the Catholic prayers. So how is it that the whole of the middle island is Protestant? We set foot there before the missionaries, they have not yet, up till now, formally evangelised them[7] (I note here that the Maoris of the middle island follow the practices of the Protestants as exactly as the Maoris of the island where we are). What strange reversal has been brought about here? Must it be attributed to a lack of priests, or of books? I say it is a lack of books. I could prove it in the clearest way by intrinsic proofs, but I will content myself with three facts.

Father Baty was a fairly long time at Te Mahia. What did he achieve without books? Almost nothing. I stayed twice as long at Akaroa; you came there three times yourself, no missionary had been there, all the Maoris of the peninsula were pagan, and without any prejudice against us, and what did I achieve without books? Nothing at all. I had the sorrow of being informed that all those whom I had baptised, with the exception of some old people, had become Protestants. They come by [trentaines ? thirties] from Port-Olive and from Otago to get books in Wellington from the [p3]Protestant missionaries. So if you had twice as many, three times more missionaries than you have, your mission, with the system we have followed, and some added fractions of Maoris, would be as miserable as it is now. On the contrary, with the few priests that you have, if you had provided us with books, such as we all wanted, we would have made the Protestants tremble, and reduced them to only a minor role. Health, passion, zeal and devotion; all the apostolic qualities would be found in each member of your clergy; we would have travelled immense distances; the triumphant masses, aroused [and] stimulated by books, would have doubled our energy; we would first of all have performed a surprising number of baptisms of children, the others, older, would then gradually have fallen before our zeal[8] as they fell and are still falling by thousands under the axe of the Protestants. Then would have been the time for writing to Europe interesting, burning, captivating letters, and the triumph of Catholicism in this island would have been brought about; glory to the Catholic Bishop of New Zealand, glory to the priests, glory to the Society of Mary, but greater glory in heaven. While the system which has been followed for nearly eight years has paralysed everything. The tribes have fallen apart to run to quench their thirst in the books of the Protestants, the few remaining are without energy: both pastors and flock are languishing. The voice of the former has been stifled by the demands for books from the latter. Catholicism is dying in New Zealand. Protestantism alone is triumphant.

Your priests wanted books, but it must not be forgotten that they wanted books having the qualities demanded by the character and the [mour? – moeurs? – customs] of the [New] Zealanders. Now why have your priests called out so much for books? How have they considered the need for books? Did we claim that a book would convert the Maoris immediately and on its own? Never did such an idea come to our minds. We knew at our first communion that without grace, human beings can do nothing in ordine ad salutem.[9] The need for grace [illegible word] was shown later in theology by all sorts of proofs. In what sense, then, did we want books? Having realised that [p4] the weakness of the Maori was for books, having recognised that books alone and not [gifts of] clothing moved and aroused the masses, set them going and captivated them, [and] saw that by this means the Protestants [pastorent – are sowing?] disaster in our ranks, were attracting everyone to them, were binding together everyone to them, we told ourselves: “We cannot change the character the nature of the New Zealander. Books are the only way of drawing him to us, books are the only way of holding on to him. We have to use books, and while they will attract [people] to us and we hold on to them, with the grace of the Redeemer we will strike them by the oral teaching at the [coeur ? – heart] of the Catholic Church.” There is the sense in which we all understood and all understand the need for books. There is the sole point which, when wisely put into practice, would have, with grace, given life to the mission. The priests had understood it; and which, if neglected, would have brought extinction to [the mission], the priests had foreseen. So that, Your Lordship, your circular letter neither attacks nor destroys in any way the need for books in the sense that we understood it, [nor asserts] that we have in any way lost our fondness for this necessity.[10] It attacks the need for books only in a sense that we have never admitted, which never entered the thoughts of any of us, in a sense which would suppose the most crass ignorance on our part, the most heretical [herrens? – erreurs ? – errors].

The example of the primitive church seems irrelevant to me at the present time, which has totally different circumstances from those prevailing then, both in the people entrusted to us and the heretics who surround us. The apostles preached to the Jews, to the Greeks, to the Romans etc. They were not childlike people like the Maoris. When Paul appeared at the Areopagus in Athens,[11] the Athenians did not begin by saying to him: “If you bring us books we will adopt your form of worship.” If those who received the faith, afterwards abandoned it, it wasn’t because they were not given books and schools that they apostatised, but for other reasons: because people preached against the divinity of Jesus Christ [p5] St John wrote his Gospel to prove that; or because of divisions caused by pride, St Paul wrote his epistle to the Romans; or because of false teachers, he wrote to the Corinthians. If printing had existed then, and if the apostles had seen that a sect getting their own works printed was attracting everyone to itself, what would they have done? Would they have been satisfied with oral preaching?[12] No, they would have had their own works printed. This hypothesis is verified in New Zealand. Heretics are stripping us with our own weapons, harvesting with our own tools, building the church on our own books; leaving us only our eyes to weep. Sad onlookers,[13] we allow the sheepfold of the Lord to be ravaged and sacked with our own sword. The practice of the primitive Church condemns our practice. When the name of Christian begins to spread among paganism, people begin to accuse the adorers of God of atheism, of giving themselves up to secret crimes, of various infamies, of being enemies of the State. These calumnies, spread about, were able to prevent many pagans from being converted to Christianity. St Justin understood the situation and wrote the first apologia for Christianity.[14] These calumnies continued still. Other apologias appeared. The Gnostics, the Ebionites were ravaging the primitive church. St Irenaeus [and] Origen took up the pen and filled the world with their writings. In the primitive Church, divine action was obvious: miracles went along with the words and actions of the preachers because the Church had to be set up and human means would have been insufficient, but today, when the Church has been established, God wants us to use all human means, and wants to perform miracles only if human means are not enough to open the way for grace.

Concerning Holy Scripture you say, my Lord, that it is not the practice of the Church to hand it to the faithful. It is on the basis of this principle, I think, that you wish to do nothing about having the divine book printed for the natives. I note, for a start, that Bergier[15] says that all the ancient Fathers [of the Church] strongly advised the reading of Sacred Scripture, that the Church has never forbidden the faithful from reading accurate versions, but that she [p6] has always forbidden the reading of altered and falsified Bibles, because reading them, instead of being food for life for the soul, is a deadly poison. The falsified Bible is no longer the word of God, [but] is the language of error.

Here is the reply of an English Catholic scholar to the Protestants falsely accusing the Church of forbidding the reading of the Bible: “The Latin Vulgate was first printed about seventy years before the event called the Reformation. Within those seventy years it went through about eight hundred editions, two hundred versions being in the vernacular languages of the different countries of Europe.” [16]

The Bible of Martini, Archbishop of Florence, printed in Italian in 1558, went through twenty editions, and several sovereign pontiffs have given it their highest praises.

The practice which we ought to follow in New Zealand would be, it seems to me, the practices observed by the Churches which have been in immediate contact with Protestantism since its beginnings, because we are in contact with the same adversaries who have the same prejudices. Now in Germany, in England, in Ireland, the practice of these Churches is to have printed and give out the Bible, as much to send the Protestants packing[17] as to hold on to the Catholics, and the English and Irish Bishops alone can tell of the services which the Douay version has given them, the good it has done for their Church. As well, it has been approved by more than twenty-five Bishops. Right now the English Catholics, with their Bishops at their side, are getting printed a new translation of the Gospels. We who have lived only a short time[18] alongside Protestantism, and who consequently know little, we seem to be rejecting the practice of these venerable Churches who have fought it hand to hand for more than three hundred years.

The New Testament is, of all the books, the one which best suits the Maori character. Each nation has a different way of expressing the things which lead them to understand, taste, savour, love it. That arises from the various sorts of different customs of each people. The Maori is of Asiatic or Oriental origin – the New [Testament] was written in an Oriental language and reflects the Oriental way of thinking.[19]

[p7] So it follows that the Maori, who shares so many striking traits with the Jews in several practices and customs, finds his own language’s way of thinking in the Scriptures, which abound in metaphors, in comparisons, in parables, in proverbs,[20] in figures of all sorts. It’s there precisely that the Maori way of speaking is found, [a way of speaking] that he understands, that he loves, that he enjoys, that he is carried along by, captivated, bound by, while our way of speaking, cold, practical, orderly, methodical, de l’accident - ?, stripped of sensible things [abstract?] is only distasteful to the Maoris. Here is a little example which proves the effect that the way of speaking has on the Maori when he recognises his language in it. On the way to making the first visit to Rua Tahuna,[21] when I was at Opotiki, I came across, in the middle of the mountains, a little village which was Catholic; there were only two Protestants [there]. These Maoris seemed to me so simple, so gentle, that I [illegible word – considered?] them worthy of being admitted to baptism. So I talked to them about baptism, its excellence, its necessity, in the same way as we would speak about it in our own language, but I could not persuade them. Then I stood up and sounded a trumpet blast in imaginative language. I was preaching in the desert on the banks of the Jordan. I saw Christ going towards it, he plunged into the waters, heaven opened, the Holy spirit came down on him in the form of a dove and Jehovah called from on high: “There is my beloved.”[22] This river flowing in front of us, this is the Jordan. Do you not want to go down into the waters, to come up from them as shining as the sun, and to hear Jehovah tell you, “There are those I love etc” and almost all of them told me that they wanted to be baptised, and I baptised them. The same thing happened to me with a little child close to death, and for whom the high chief was making most sacred[23] supplications. Certainly no one wanted to let him be baptised. Then I argued till I was blue in the face, Maori-style.[24] I got up and called out: “The light is on your head; darkness is under your feet. You are a priest, I am a priest. You work for the body, I work for the soul. Would you not allow me to put a torch in the hand of this child’s soul, so that it does not lose its way in the desert placed of the other world?” And he answered: “Meatia” you wish]. I baptised the child. The way of speaking[25] has an inexpressible power and effect on the Maori when this way of speaking is his own way of speaking.

Now the reading of Scripture may be harmful to the Protestants; [p8] it is obvious, because of their principle of private interpretation, that the more they read the Bible, the more they will split up and confuse themselves, but it is not the same with the Catholic. The reading of the Bible will always be advantageous to him, because he does not give it his own interpretation, but follows the interpretations of the Church, and what people is more docile than the Maori in reading Holy Scripture, [and] in following the interpretations of the Church? The Maoris, even the Protestants, are not aware[26] of private interpretation – they are too childlike to be capable of it. They have everything interpreted for them by their ministers, and it is through that that the ministers do us harm and make real Protestants of the Maoris, a Protestantism which is not for the native a consequence of Sacred Scripture, but a consequence of the interpretation of his minister. It would be also the same way that we would harm our adversaries by the true interpretations of the Church, and that we would make committed Catholics of the Maoris. Holy Scripture would draw him[27] to us, would secure him for us, and while he would be, so to speak, tied [to us] we would give him the true shape of the children of God and the Church, somewhat as the potter gives a shape to his vase when he has the clay. Holy Scripture has been promised in every corner of your mission to the Catholic natives and to that crowd of Maori Protestants who are waiting for it only to immediately come over to our side. It is your priests who have promised it – what am I saying? – it is we Marists ourselves who have promised it, your priests have done nothing but confirm your promises. You have told me so in various circumstances that you want first of all to have [the Gospel of] St Matthew printed, and never have you told me that you would not have the other evangelists and the rest of the New [Testament] printed. But even if you had not promised anything of the Scriptures, your priests would have promised them: their necessity is obvious in so many places; so evident, so unanimous,[28] that it could never be suspected that this necessity did not seem obvious to the Bishop, and that he alone would form a totally different opinion.

I can assure you that this promise has held back a certain number of them and still holds some back. Coming back from Tauranga, [p9] I got to the awful gorges between Taupo and Te Wairoa [sic – Wairoa]. In the middle of this deserted place, I found a little village, where about thirty or forty people lived. Half were Protestant, and the rest Catholic. The Catholics had some of your booklets, but it could be seen that their hearts were going over to the Protestants because of [their lack of] books. So one of the came to question me in particular, very cleverly. It was the Kaumatua. “Will you always,” he said to me, “give us books in the same language, and never books in the language of the Protestants’ books?” I understood immediately what he wanted to find out from me: to stay a Catholic, or to become a Protestant. I answered him, “But the book that the missionaries give the Maoris does not belong to them. It is from my hand that they have taken it, it belongs to me, so how could it occur that I am not giving you my own book?” My answer satisfied him completely. If I had said to this kaumatua, “Scripture is not for the faithful – it only divides the Protestants, the Maoris do not understand it. A book which leads them to understand is better than this pure text, the contents are worth more than the container[29] etc etc. This Maori would have agreed with me in everything, I am sure, but I would have [illegible word – gained?] nothing in his estimation, and while telling me, “Koia – you are right”, he would have said to his own people, “Become Protestants.”

That group of Maoris which separated from us to unite with the Protestants, undertook this separation for a host of reasons which seemed to us to be different, and to come from various principles. So we have attributed it: in some cases to the shortage of priests, in others to poverty, or to the calumnies of the Protestants, or to the lack of some book. But we were greatly misled in that. that separation has its origin and root in Scripture alone, as I am more convinced each day, as I look more closely at the Maori; all the others have had effect only as accidental causes, and Scripture has been the essential and efficient cause. It is there that was to be found the source [le male] and the root, it is there that critical thinking, the remedy, needed to be applied. The Protestants understood perfectly what I am saying, they did not cease trembling about it until they were confirmed [p10] by us in their [illegible word] prejudice that the Catholic Church does not give the Scriptures to the faithful. And what are they saying to these Catholic Maoris? “Your great sickness, it is [for?] this book of life.[30] The Bishop will never give it to you, and in spite of yourself you will come to be healed of your sickness in this book. Do you not wish that everyone should gather with us from all areas, and that the Epikopo [Catholics] should turn their backs on him?” I have found this way in which the missionaries speak in various places.

All of the Maoris, while being very free, are very much slaves. Divided up into clans or families, there is always one of them who holds all the wills in his. This one is usually a kaumatua who does not know how to read and who consequently does not experience the sickness for books as do the young people. This kaumatua, usually without any religion other that his own, does not associate with us except for motives of self-interest, in the hope that something will come his way, or indeed out of a [word hole–punched out – party?] spirit, he does not attend the worship of his Maori adversaries. There you have the basis of Catholicism in New Zealand. That is why everything has slackened off[31] when the source of gifts has ceased flowing for a moment, [but?] the party spirit has retained the others for us. Protestantism on the contrary is based on a need, a necessity on the part of the Maoris. Books have become as much a need for them as tobacco. The natives feel it, and describe it perfectly when they say: “My book is my tobacco.”

I believe, Bishop, that I am faithfully expressing to you the feelings of my confrères when I tell you that we all feel the need to have the New [Testament] printed, at least the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles and several other texts from the epistles relating to matters of controversy and the foundation[32] of Catholic dogma. If you show no confidence in your clergy in a matter on which it is so unanimous and believes so important, that can have only the saddest outcome. We have, up till now, fought with courage against all the obstacles, the hope for Scripture has sustained us, because we have always believed that the first day we had this book, the natives would flock to us, as they are flocking to the Protestants, not to ask us for tobacco, blankets [p11], shirts, and to threaten us with leaving our worship, if we are not strong in love for the things of this world. But if you destroy this hope, all that remains is discouragement, a discouraged clergy, and a paralysed clergy. The head will have no members to act, everything will die, [and] each one will run for his life from the places recently come into existence.

I now suppose that Holy Scripture was not necessary for the Maoris. It would be necessary for your priests. Sacred Scripture is the priests’ book. The Church obliges him, under pain of mortal sin, to read it for an hour or an hour and a half, in the recitation of the Breviary. The life of the priest must be the life of Jesus Christ. The life of Jesus Christ is in Holy Scripture. There it is that the priest must draw from, there he must be filled, so as to then lavish his superabundance on the plants around him, to give them life as gentle rain gives to the grass of the fields. We have to prove our origins to the Maoris just as the Church proves them, through Holy Scripture; we have to fight the Protestants just as she fights them, through Holy Scripture. But all that requires a version[33] which is in the language that we have to speak. It is not easy to translate Scripture into Maori on the spot, even for those who have spent several years in New Zealand. So it is even more impossible for those who have been here only a few years and for those who are coming. How shameful it is for us to be forced, in a public gathering like a meeting, to have to resort to the Protestants’ version. It is also very tiresome when working on your own,[34] when you need Scripture, to be forced to go and open the Protestant version, where they have allowed the same falsifications as in their English version. Personally, I am beginning to translate the four Gospels for my own use. My version will be too imperfect, but I believe that is better than being obliged to have to use, in the presence of the Maoris, and in particular, a Protestant version falsified in several places.

[p12] Dear Father,[35]

I may be mistaken, but it seems certain to me that we need something of Sacred Scripture. It is truly the book needed to attract and hold on to the Maoris. If you people who are alongside the Bishop see the need for it, how can you remain neutral? Our mission is dying. I am not doing very much here. The Maoris are madder on books than in any other place in New Zealand. The Protestant Bishop is having arithmetic taught to the Maoris here. That remarkably interests him, and they are making rapid progress. I know nothing at all about this subject and I was obliged to teach it to some Catholics in my mission – to retain them. I have not [textbook on] arithmetic.[36] I have Mutet’s algebra, geometry and trigonometry. I lack his arithmetic. This single volume must be at the Bay of Islands. Please send it at the first opportunity to Father Forest, and if you do not find Mutet, send me any other [book on] arithmetic. I hope you will oblige me.

Nothing new here. The Maoris are calm. The change of governor has aroused real joy.[37] The Protestant Bishop and the kaumatua [leader] of the Wesleyans have just arrived in Wellington. Father O’Reily has just left, to go and visit Nelson. We have moved into the new presbytery. It is fine and the site magnificent. Please tell Father Séon that I have absolutely no accounts to send him. It is Father O’Reily who must settle those with him, and he will do that on his return from Nelson. Mr Pètre [sic – Petre] has come back from Sydney. He saw the Bishop [Pompallier] who told him that he is not going to come back to New Zealand until matters with the Maoris are settled. The white [people] here, the Catholics, find it strange that the Bishop gives as a reason for his journey to Sydney the letter from [Cap – Captain?] or ex-governor[38] [illegible word] telling him that we have been drenched [trempé] in this war.

Mr Clifford has written a letter to the Wellington newspaper showing the falsity of the governor’s letter concerning us. Personally, I would not take up the [illegible word – pen?] to [illegible word – answer?] these calumnies. Goodbye, dear Father. Please pray for your humble and obedient servant. My compliments to Fathers Baty, Séon [and] Mr Hiver [Yvert] and the Brothers.

M[issionary] apost[olic]


  1. une pièce entière
  2. Unsigned, but in Father Petit-Jean’s writing.
  3. by missionaries he seems to mean the Protestant missionaries who had come before the Catholics, and who very much relied on the Bible as a sole means of instruction - translator’s note
  4. the South Island - translator’s note
  5. now Lyttelton harbour - translator’s note
  6. he means Protestant missionaries, it seems - translator’s note
  7. il n’y eut pas encore aujourd’hui évangelisé en forme
  8. seroient ensuite et par degré, tombés sous notres hache It sounds as if the Crusader mentality flourished still - translator’s note
  9. towards their own salvation
  10. et que nous nous sommes toujours dépris cette necessité
  11. Acts 17:16-34
  12. this seems to have been what Pompallier thought should be given primacy - translator’s note
  13. tristes expectateurs
  14. about 165 AD. It was written for the Emperor Marcus Aurelius - translator’s note
  15. Nicolas Bergier, 1718-1790, according to the article on him in the New Catholic Encyclopedia Vol 2, p 323, “was the best apologist the church in France produced during the second half of the eighteenth century to oppose the rationalism of Voltaire, Rousseau etc? - translator’s note
  16. sic. He does not give the author of these two sentences - translator’s note
  17. pour remiser/ramiser ? les Protestants
  18. quelques jours – literally a few days
  19. Father Comte’s view of Greek as an oriental language is interesting! - translator’s note. People of the NEAR East were referred to as oriental - Merv
  20. sentences
  21. sic – Ruatahuna – a village in the Urewera country - translator’s note
  22. cf Luke 3:22
  23. pagan - translator’s note
  24. J’argumente à tard et travers
  25. le langage
  26. ne connoissent pas
  27. the Maori - translator’s note
  28. unanime
  29. of the kete (kit) of the mereni (?) – du kete du mereni
  30. ta grande maladie, c’est ce livre de vie
  31. s’est debandé
  32. établissement
  33. of Scripture - translator’s note
  34. dans la pratique privée
  35. [Here Comte is once again addressing Father Petit-Jean - translator’s note]
  36. The French is Je n’ai point d’arithmétique, which may also mean I have no skill in arithmetic - translator’s note
  37. Fitzroy, who was seen by many settlers as excessively pro-Maori, was replaced as governor by Captain George Grey in November 1845 - translator’s note
  38. Captain Robert Fitzroy was the immediate ex-governor - translator’s note