By Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD

FOREIGNERS who think that corruption in government, and street and village crime - especially murder, rape and theft committed by the dreaded 'rascals' - are as endemic in Papua New Guinea as malaria and Dengue fever, would certainly have that impression reinforced by the media.

Any aspirations that Papua New Guinea may have had of setting up a tourist industry would not have been advanced by a segment of the ABC's 7.30 Report dealing with the 'rascals' that was put to air in Australia on July 11. Its screening coincided with unconfirmed reports that Indonesia and Australia were drawing up contingency plans for dealing with the possible breakdown of law and order in Papua New Guinea. And it went to air only a few hours before a tragic plane crash on a beach near Ladava mission took the lives of 15 passengers and the pilot and cast a pall of sorrow over Alotau and the whole of the Milne Bay province of PNG.


Front Page: Dancers from Sidayadayo village, Molima Coast, West Fergusson island, Eastern Papua. Raymond Lesipeni (foreground). See story page 21


Back Page: The newly consecrated Sacred Heart Cathedral, Alotau, Milne bay, viewed from surrounding hills.
Photos: Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD

The image most Australians have of our closest neighbour, and our natural ally, is of a country where crime is rampant, and where the economy is in shambles, with a pristine environment, notably forests, fishing grounds and mineral resources, under serious threat from unscrupulous foreign and local businessmen and politicians 'on the take' — all intent on making a 'quick buck'.

Another View

One wonders how fair it would be, and what it would do to Australia's fledgling tourism industry if, on the pretext that the public finds the topic interesting, overseas countries ran programmes on the reported 40% increase in the incidence of muggings in NSW, interviewed some of the muggers, and showed images of thieves and killers brandishing their deadly, and often home-made weapons.

As always, there is a grain of truth in such sensationalised and tasteless reporting. PNG does have serious social problems, high unemployment and the dislocation of traditional family ties among them. But who benefits from publicising these problems? TV cameras and radio mikes - like trout drawn by brightly coloured lures - are notoriously attracted by corruption in high places, squeaky doors and singing canaries. Programmes and news items that once would have been shown to specialised audiences professionally concerned about crime prevention and containment are now daily fare on your favourite TV channel. With predictable consequences.

Yet there is another side to Papua New Guinea that the media ignore. And discovering it will be an exhilarating experience, especially for the person seeking a safe path through the nightmarish scenario of junk-news, junk-knowledge and worse still, junk friends, made through cyberspace by youngsters and others old enough to know better, hooked on wired space.

For those with eyes to see, it involves a journey of discovery measured not just in miles, but back through time.

Robo-Priest® in the First World

Too many of us modern Catholics eke out our lives as anonymously as our non-Catholic or non-believing neighbours in the vast urban wastelands of our 'First World' society. And we often view the history and practice of our faith through a filter that is provided by the materialistic and secular environment in which we live.

The electronic revolution, far from bringing human beings closer together, has succeeded in driving a wedge between us - especially between members of the same family - be it of 'blood' or of 'faith'.

Have you ever tried to interrupt a child or spouse 'working' on his or her computer? or watching TV? or 'roaming' the Internet? Have you ever phoned the local priest or monastery for help, to find yourself placed in a queue or speaking to an answering machine? Or rung the front door of the presbytery in an emergency to find that the only attention you receive is from a surveillance camera set in the porch?

The almost total absence of parish visitation by priests these days is another consequence of our viewing our world through this phoney filter. It also reflects the social mores of western countries; and the real or imagined resentment felt by Cyberman at intrusions into his private world of chips and cellular networks and wires.

If priests, religious and fellow-parishioners can't show they care by moving gently into and through that private world, and bringing some realism and humanity into it, be assured that there are myriad multinational companies, marketers and Protestant and other sects waiting in the wings to occupy the space the Church's representatives vacate.

Robo-priest® - for all his media acceptability, whiz-bang gadgetry and 21st century style - can never replace the unmistakably human, and therefore imperfect, servant of God whom the Catholic Church sends out, as St Luke reminds us 'like a lamb among wolves,' to seek the lost sheep, and to nourish and protect those remaining in the sheep-fold.

Another aspect of secular 'thinking' that has impinged dramatically on the Church and its mission is the prevalent equiparating of administrators or managers, with leaders.

In many First World countries, some Catholic bishops appear to view themselves (and be viewed) as administrators first, and fathers to their flocks a poor second. Try ringing your local metropolitan bishop and you may well find it as difficult a task as trying to make contact with the State premier; or the Commissioner of Police. Even fear of harassment by 'cranks' or disturbed people should not so sanitise the perceived role of our bishops, that they remain beyond the reach of their flock.

Papua-New Guinea


Children watching the dances after the Mass (See story gage 21)

The relationship between priests and people in Papua New Guinea, on the other hand, is refreshingly different: as yet unaffected by the guardedness and anonymity that is so sought after in the West. Priests and people relate towards one another at a level of naturalness and humanity that has largely been lost by New Age people held together by electronic links, and an almost universal ignorance of, if not outright disdain for, the past.

Missionaries in PNG could not isolate themselves even if they wanted to. The parish house or convent is a local meeting place; the mission truck or van is bus and ambulance to people for whom the priest is really 'father' and the nuns and male religious are their 'sisters' and 'brothers'. Some privacy may have been sacrificed, but the gains in trust and a sense of 'belonging' to the one family of God more than compensate for any loss.

In our haste to shrug off 'paternalism' in the name of 'freedom,' some of us from the First World seem to have lost all sense of brotherly love along the way. It is not uncommon, however, for the missionary priest in PNG to be wakened in the middle of the night to drive a woman in labour down half-made roads, or take her by boat accompanied by most of her family, to the nearest hospital. It would be unusual for the priest visiting such a hospital not to know almost all the patients if not by name then by face.

No bishop in Papua New Guinea can be remote from his priests or from the Christian people. And missionaries understand and accept the fact that a commitment of faith on the part of the local Catholic people, demands a reciprocal commitment of time and interest on the part of the Church's ministers.

The Church is the bishop and his flock

Not only does the bishop know his priests and fellow-missionaries; he lives amongst them and is as familiar a sight in town or village as the local teachers or the people who work in the trade stores.

Bishop Moore, whom I spent time with recently in Alotau, is available to all corners, at all - even inconvenient - times. 'Too available,' I can hear the Time and Motion experts from 'down south' grumbling. And his modest bungalow next to the Cathedral is never free of visitors - students needing accommodation or transport, teachers and catechists, lay-missionaries, builders, local parishioners, visitors and so on without let up.

Because of this old-fashioned availability, no one is in any doubt who is the father of the community. And the sense of 'belonging to the Church' is palpable. To live for a time with Catholic communities in PNG is to step back in time to the early Church, which was, as Tradition and especially written Tradition testifies, not some idealised time free of worries, infidelity, physical danger or crises of faith, but a time when people understood better the meaning of 'community,' fellowship,' 'sharing,' and 'unselfish love'. And when people understood and spoke to one another, freely acknowledging their need for forgiveness and salvation.

This may seem hopelessly unreal or even irrelevant, to those of us who judge 'progress' by dollar earnings, and define 'civilization' in terms of five star hotels, air-conditioning, the internet, CNN and Pay TV.

What We Stand To Gain


Charles mark from Nigaho Island, Nimowa, with Christopher George behind him.

Yet, we from First World countries who are willing to admit to the emptiness of our lives, and to our desperate need for solitude and 'belonging,' can rediscover treasures here in Papua New Guinea that may not interest foreign investors, but are more valuable than gold, silver, wood chips or uranium: the importance of symbols; the value of 'authority' in human societies; and of material elements in worship; the incomparable worth of Tradition; respect for the past; and especially for those who have gone before us in the faith.

There are other riches to be harvested in PNG: an unmistakable dignity of bearing and self-composure in young and old; an ineradicable respect for those in authority, especially for parents and the aged; an acceptance of death as both natural and reasonable: the mature fruit letting go of the life-giving tree; a valuing of life that ensures that there are no orphans: all parentless or illegitimate children are welcomed into caring and loving homes; and an innate dignity and modesty that serves to enhance natural charms.

All or most of these seem to be lost to us; or are in the process of being destroyed in our mad rush into the third Millenium down the information superhighway.

To stand at the Alotau wharf on Milne Bay and watch the loading and unloading of the various mission boats; to mingle with the crowds of villagers, and sense the anticipation of the Catholic children returning for the school holidays to their villages on Rossel island three days away by boat, or Nimowa island a two-day journey, or Normanby island only seven hours away: is not this to stand with St Paul on the wharf at Ephesus, amid the jostling crowds and vociferous sailors and merchants, or at Puteoli, on his final journey to Rome, and like him to find in people of different races, languages, customs and colours 'fellow Christians' (Acts 28,14) for whom he prayed that they 'be experts in goodness and simpletons in evil'.

Paul implored them, as he implores us still, to remain united in the faith that he handed on to them, and to keep their eyes peeled for 'those who stir up quarrels and lead others astray, contrary to the teaching that you received'(Romans 16, 19.17)

Or stand by the roadside, or on the wharf at Milne Bay, listening to the languages of Bougainville and New Britain, Yule island, the Trobriand islands, Rossel, Normanby and Nimowa islands; sensing the excitement and anticipation of the passengers as the Morning Star II, the Bonaventure or the Magella head off on their regular trips to destinations near and far.

Isn't this to stand with St Peter as he disembarked at Capua before taking the Via Appia to Rome, and watched people from every corner of the Roman empire, listening as they bargained and gossiped, oblivious of who he was, or that he was on the path to martyrdom?

To see the concern Catholics in PNG show for one another is to understand better what the prince of the Apostles meant when he wrote of our need for 'brotherly kindness' and the importance of virtue, knowledge, self-control, fortitude, piety and love (II Peter 1,5-7).

One's sense of wonder at new lands and a new-found faith has, of course, to be balanced against Peter's common-sense reminder 'that you will have false teachers among you' who 'will trade on your credulity with sheer fabrications'.(II Peter 2,1.3) Even the Garden that God created for our first parents had its deceiving serpent.

Coping with unfamiliar languages and customs, inevitable delays and difficulties in moving from one place to another, and with an almost total lack of facilities that today we think we cannot do without, was the daily experience of our ancestors in the faith. These strove joyfully and resolutely against unimaginably tough opposition, to spread the good news of our Lord's kingdom in the first decades of the Church's existence - before the New Testament was even written down.

It is still the experience of believers today, wherever the Church is, as Pope John Paul II constantly urges us to be, truly 'missionary'.

That the early Christians lived their faith so successfully should motivate us to rediscover their secret - which lies splendidly if partially revealed, for all with eyes to see it, in the as yet pristine religious environment of the Catholic communities of PNG.

- Paul Stenhouse, MSC PhD

From "Annals Australasia"    August 1995

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