Pope Francis to find ‘strong and multi-coloured’ Church in Papua New Guinea
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Pope Francis to find ‘strong and multi-coloured’ Church in Papua New Guinea

The origins of the Church in Papua New Guinea, the challenges of the first proclamation of the Gospel on this island, the current challenges of the Christian community on the island and the rise of indigenous vocations: these are some of the topics addressed 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 journey 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 trip 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 relates that the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart were sent to Papua New Guinea during the lifetime of their founder, Father Jules Chevalier. They 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 established some missions on the south coast, among the Roro and Mekeo tribes.

“In fact, since 1881 we have been present in Papua New Guinea, marking the beginning of the modern era of the Church in this country. There had been a minimal presence several centuries before, in very ancient times, but since 1881 we have been present continuously. We are, in a sense, the pioneers of ecclesial growth in Papua New Guinea.”

A chapel marking the spot where the first mass in Papua New Guinea was celebrated

A chapel marking the spot where the first mass in Papua New Guinea was celebrated

Papua New Guinea: “The Land of the Unexpected”

The Guatemalan missionary describes Papua New Guinea as a multicultural world and the Church in that country as multi-colored, multilingual and multi-ethnic in every sense of the word.

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

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

“Pope Francis will find a Church with a strong practice of faith, 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 people with very ancient traditions. We have to change the SIM card in our heads when we get to Papua New Guinea.”

A multicultural Church

Referring to the ecclesial reality that Pope Francis will encounter in Papua New Guinea, Father Alvarado indicates that it is a Church with many rituals and dances, born from a rural world of jungle, rivers, fishing and hunting.

“We missionaries have a province with over 115 missionaries, all indigenous, 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 describe in words, but there is a rhythm of time where what we say in the missions becomes evident: people have time, and we have clocks. For them, time is always present. They are the great people of New Guinea.”

Papua New Guinea: Multi-ethnic and multi-cultural

Papua New Guinea: Multi-ethnic and multi-cultural

The challenges of the first proclamation of the Gospel

Among the challenges the missionaries faced in initially proclaiming the gospel was the culture of Papua, which was difficult to understand, including practices such as cannibalism, health problems, lack of infrastructure, and the cultural and religious world of the Papuans.

“In the beginning, there were practices of cannibalism, which today have practically disappeared. This was one of the first challenges. There were also important challenges in terms of health: it was a time of malaria and diseases because these peoples had almost no contact with the West. The physical difficulty was due to the absence of roads, of infrastructure. The cultural world was also a challenge: our missionaries did not understand well at the beginning their religious world and their practices. However, the Gospel was present, the seeds of the Kingdom were still there, and Jesus was there, but with practices that made reconciliation difficult at the beginning.”

Current challenges for a Church on the way

Today, Father Alvarado emphasizes that significant progress has been made in Papua New Guinea and that the Church there is strong. However, it faces challenges like those around the world, such as climate change, disrespectful mining of local communities and systemic poverty.

“Papua New Guinea suffers from systemic poverty, although the country has considerable natural resources. Many international companies exploit the country. Climate change is strongly felt because the country depends heavily on its natural resources. Deforestation and large-scale monocultures affect the population. “Faceless” mining is also a major problem. The Church is deeply affected and strives to stand with the poorest. Furthermore, the tribal world is a challenge for outsiders and for the Church: how to respect tribal or clan structures and evangelize from within while respecting and trying to heal the anti-values ​​that exist in all social and ecclesial structures. This is a major challenge because these are very different worldviews.”

The first blessed of Papua and indigenous vocations

Father Alvarado explains that, thanks to the proclamation of the Gospel, various indigenous vocations have emerged among the Papuans. They are even following the cause for canonization of the first blessed of Papua New Guinea, Peter ToRot, a lay missionary of the Sacred Heart who was martyred in the 1940s.

“Pope Francis will find indigenous bishops and priests. There are fewer and fewer foreigners who have done a great job, 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 martyred around 1945, who is very popular with the people. He was beatified in 1995. We have houses of formation with indigenous religious vocations, religious, diocesans and committed lay people. It is not impossible, but it requires “taking off our shoes” in a land as sacred as Papua New Guinea and changing our own missionary cadres. We must enter the culture and promote the Gospel from within. This is one of the most consistent proposals of the Pope to missionaries.”

The first indigenous vocations in the country

The first indigenous vocations in the country

Prayers for the Pope’s trip to Asia and Oceania

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

“We must look to the other side of the world, where there are people who suffer, people who are happy, indigenous peoples with values ​​from which we Latin Americans can learn and share. Let us be open to those other parts of Oceania, Asia and Africa, where the people of God walk, such 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 a people of God, in Papua New Guinea in particular. Let us continue to walk in synodality on both sides of the world.”