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Pope will find a “strong and colorful” church in Papua New Guinea

Pope will find a “strong and colorful” church in Papua New Guinea
Pope will find a “strong and colorful” church in Papua New Guinea

The origins of the Church in Papua New Guinea, the challenges of the first proclamation of the Gospel there, the current challenges facing the Christian community on the island and the increase in indigenous vocations. These are some of the topics discussed by Father Mario Abzalón Alvarado Tovar, Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, in an interview with Vatican News.

By Renato Martinez

“Pope Francis will find a Church with a strong practice of faith, but in the style of Papua New Guinea. These are very ancient peoples with very ancient traditions. For them, the presence of the Pope is a confirmation of their path as a Church, as the people of God.”

This is what Father Mario Abzalón Alvarado Tovar, Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC), says.

Ahead of the Pope’s apostolic journey to Asia and Oceania in September, which will include a stop in Papua New Guinea, Father Alvarado spoke to Vatican News.

Origins of the mission in Papua New Guinea

Father Alvarado says that the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart were sent to Papua New Guinea during the lifetime of their founder, Father Jules Chevalier, and received their missionary mandate in the late 1870s.

After a first attempt to settle on the island in 1881, the missionaries celebrated the first mass there on July 4, 1885 and founded several missions on the south coast among the Roro and Mekeo tribes.

“In fact, we have been in Papua New Guinea since 1881, marking the beginning of the modern era of the Church there. Many centuries before, in very ancient times, there were minimal presences, but since 1881 we have had a continuous presence. We are, in a sense, the pioneers of Church growth in Papua New Guinea.”

A chapel marks the place where the first mass was celebrated in PNG.

A chapel marks the place where the first mass was celebrated in PNG.

Papua New Guinea: “The Land of the Unexpected”

The Guatemalan missionary describes Papua New Guinea as a multicultural world and the church there as multi-coloured, multilingual and multi-ethnic in every respect.

“There is a saying that describes Papua New Guinea as ‘the land of the unexpected,’” says Father Alvarado.

It is a country with a very ancient cultural tradition, but a way of life that is very different from the Western world.

“Pope Francis will find a church with a strong faith practice, but in the style of Papua New Guinea, the islands of New Guinea, the mainland, the highlands and the coastal areas. These are very ancient peoples with very ancient traditions. We need to change the SIM card in our heads when we arrive in Papua New Guinea.”

A multicultural church

Regarding the ecclesial reality that Pope Francis will find in Papua New Guinea, Father Alvarado points out that it is a Church with many rituals and dances that emerged from a rural world of jungle, rivers, fishing and hunting.

“We missionaries have a province with more than 115 missionaries, all of them locals, and there are several congregations in the Church of Papua New Guinea. They are a very simple people in that sense, but very multicultural, multilingual, multi-coloured. It is difficult to put it into words, but there is a rhythm of time in which what we say in the missions becomes clear: the people have the time and we have the clocks. For them, time is always present. This is the great people of New Guinea.”

Papua New Guinea: Multiethnic and multicultural

Papua New Guinea: Multiethnic and multicultural

Challenges in the first proclamation of the Gospel

Among the challenges that missionaries faced when they first preached the gospel were the difficult-to-understand culture of Papua, with its customs such as cannibalism, health problems, lack of infrastructure, and the cultural and religious world of the Papuans.

“In the beginning there was cannibalism, which has now practically disappeared. That was one of the first challenges. There were also significant health challenges. It was a time of malaria and other diseases because these peoples had virtually no contact with the West. The physical difficulties because there were no roads and no infrastructure. The cultural world was also a challenge. Our missionaries did not fully understand their religious world and their practices at first. However, the gospel was there, the seeds of the kingdom were always there and Jesus was there, but with practices that made it difficult to reconcile things at first.”

Current challenges for a church on the way

Today, Father Alvarado stresses that there has been significant progress in Papua New Guinea and that there is a strong Church on the island. However, the island faces challenges similar to those faced around the world, such as climate change, mining without respect for local people and systemic poverty.

“There is systemic poverty in Papua New Guinea, despite the country having incredibly vast natural resources. Many international companies exploit the land. Climate change is being felt strongly as the country is heavily dependent on its natural resources. Deforestation and large-scale monocultures are impacting people. Mining ‘without a human face’ is also a major problem. The Church is deeply affected and is trying to assist those most in need. In addition, the tribal world is a challenge for both foreigners and the Church – how to respect tribal or clan structures and proselytize from within, while at the same time respecting and trying to heal the anti-values ​​that exist in all social and church structures. It is a significant challenge because they are very different worldviews.”

Papua’s first blesseds and indigenous vocations

Father Alvarado explains that the preaching of the Gospel has resulted in numerous vocations among Papuans, who are even supporting the canonization of Papua New Guinea’s first Blessed, Peter ToRot, a lay missionary of the Sacred Heart who was martyred in the 1940s.

“Pope Francis will find local bishops and priests. There are fewer and fewer foreigners who have done great work, but challenges remain. I am sure Pope Francis will feel them deeply because they are very evident in Papua New Guinea. We have Peter ToRot, the first Blessed of Papua New Guinea, a lay missionary of the Sacred Heart, who was martyred around 1945 and is greatly venerated by the people. He was beatified in 1995. We have formation houses with local religious vocations, religious, diocesan and committed lay people. It is not impossible, but it requires that on such holy ground as Papua New Guinea we ‘take off our shoes’ and change our own framework as missionaries. We must enter the culture and promote the Gospel from within. This is one of the Pope’s most consistent proposals to missionaries.”

The country’s first native vocations

The country’s first native vocations

Prayers for the Pope’s trip to Asia and Oceania

Finally, Father Alvarado invites us to be open to other realities such as Papua New Guinea and to pray for Pope Francis’ upcoming apostolic journey to Asia and Oceania.

“We must look to the other side of the world, where there are people who are suffering, people who are happy, indigenous peoples with values ​​that we Latin Americans can learn from and share. Let us be open to these other parts of Oceania, Asia and Africa where the people of God are walking, just as in Latin America and Spain. Let us pray for this journey of the Pope. The people of Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Timor and Singapore are waiting with open hearts. For them, the presence of Pope Francis is a confirmation of their journey as a Church, as the people of God in Papua New Guinea, in particular. Let us continue to walk in synodality on both sides of the world.”

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