THE EARLY CHURCH ON OUR DOORSTEP
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
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'.
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
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
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.
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,
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
Australasia" August 1995
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