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Pope will find ‘strong and multicoloured’ Church in Papua New Guinea

The origins of the Church in Papua New Guinea, the challenges of the initial proclamation of the Gospel there, the current challenges for the Christian community on the island, and the rise of native vocations. These are some of the topics that Father Mario Abzalón Alvarado Tovar, Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, discussed 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 Pope’s presence is a confirmation of their journey as a Church, as the people of God.”

That’s according to Fr Mario Abzalón Alvarado Tovar, Superior General of the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC).

Ahead of the Pope’s apostolic journey to Asia and Oceania in September, which will include a stop in PNG, Fr 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. They received their missionary mandate in the late 1870s.

After a first attempt to establish themselves on the island in 1881, the missionaries celebrated the first Mass there on July 4, 1885, and established some missions on the southern coast, among the Roro and Mekeo tribes.

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

A chapel marking the spot where PNG's first Mass was celebrated

A chapel marking the spot where PNG’s first Mass was celebrated

Papua New Guinea: ‘The Land of the Unexpected’

The Guatemalan missionary describes Papua New Guinea as a multicultural world and the Church there as multicolored, multilingual, and multiethnic in every sense.

“There is a saying that describes Papua New Guinea,” Father Alvarado says, “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, of the islands of New Guinea, of the mainland, of the highlands, and of 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

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 more than 115 missionaries, all natives, and there are several congregations in the Church of Papua New Guinea. It is a very simple people in that sense, but very multicultural, multilingual, multicolored. It is difficult to describe in words, but there is a rhythm of time where what we say in the missions becomes evident: the people have the time, and we have the clocks. For them, time is always present. That is the great people of New Guinea.”

Papua New Guinea: Multi-ethnic and multi-cultural

Papua New Guinea: Multi-ethnic and multi-cultural

Challenges in the first proclamation of the Gospel

Among the challenges faced by missionaries during the initial proclamation of the Gospel was the culture of Papua, which was difficult to understand, including practices like cannibalism, health issues, the lack of infrastructure, and the cultural and religious world of the Papuans.

“Initially, there were practices of cannibalism, which have now practically disappeared. This was one of the initial challenges. Also, significant challenges in terms of health; it was a time of malaria and diseases because these were peoples with almost no contact with the West. The physical difficulty of no roads, no infrastructure. The cultural world was also challenging; our missionaries initially did not fully understand their religious world and practices. However, the Gospel was present, the seeds of the Kingdom were always there, and Jesus was there, but with practices that initially made it difficult to reconcile things.”

Current challenges for a Church on a journey

Today, Father Alvarado emphasizes that there has been significant progress in Papua New Guinea, and there is a strong Church on the island. However, it faces challenges like those worldwide, such as climate change, mining with no respect for local communities, and systemic poverty.

“There is systemic poverty in Papua New Guinea, despite being a country with incredibly large natural resources. Many international companies are exploiting the country. Climate change is felt strongly as it is a country heavily dependent on its natural resources. Deforestation and large-scale monocultures affect the people. Mining ‘without a human face’ is also a major issue. The Church is deeply affected and strives to stand with the most needy. Additionally, the tribal world is a challenge for foreigners and the Church alike—how to respect tribal or clan structures and evangelize from, within while respecting and trying to heal the anti-values that exist within all social and ecclesial structures. It’s a significant challenge because these are very different worldviews.”

Papua’s first Blessed, and native vocations

Father Alvarado explains that as a result of the Gospel proclamation, various native vocations have emerged among the Papuans. They are even following the cause of canonization of the first blessed of Papua New Guinea, Peter ToRot, a lay Missionary of the Sacred Heart martyred in the 1940s.

“Pope Francis will find native bishops and priests. There are fewer and fewer foreigners who have done great work, but challenges remain. I’m 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 much followed by the people. He was beatified in 1995. We have formation houses with native religious vocations, religious, diocesan, and committed laypeople. It’s not impossible, but it requires ‘taking off our shoes’ on such sacred ground as Papua New Guinea and changing our own frameworks as missionaries. We need to enter the culture and promote the Gospel from within. This is one of the Pope’s most consistent propositions 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 like 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 suffer, people who are happy, indigenous people with values from which we Latin Americans can learn and share. Let’s be open to these other parts of Oceania, Asia, and Africa, where the people of God walk, just as in Latin America and Spain. Let’s pray for this journey of the Pope. The people in 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, specifically. Let us continue to walk in synodality on both sides of the world.”

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