18 March 2008

Paradise Visited

After finishing our visit to the Province of Medan, John Antony and I flew to Port Moresby for a visitation of the Vice Province of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Travelers entering the international terminal of Port Moresby's airport are greeted by a large sign saying, "Welcome to Paradise!" If that sounds presumptuous to you, it can only mean that you have never been to PNG. Not only is the country stunningly beautiful, but the hospitality of the friars and the friendliness of the people were outstanding.

Port Moresby looks many other large cities in less developed countries, with the possible exception that the traffic is not quite as bad. It isn't until you get out of the capital that you begin to notice real differences. As I flew to Mendi, capital of the Southern Highlands Province and location of the Vice Provincialate, I was impressed with the pristine beauty of the forests below. Occasionally I could spot a narrow road snaking through the trees or the huts of a small village, but otherwise the endless expanse of forest seemed untouched by human hand. Apparently, this is not exactly the case, as I was told that large areas of forest are being bought very cheaply by Chinese and Japanese companies, who then clear-cut them and take the wood to their respective countries.

The first permanent presence of the Capuchins in Papua New Guinea was begun a little more than fifty years ago when, at the request of Propaganda Fide, friars from the Pennsylvania Province went to evangelize the Southern Highlands Province. The focus of the mission has now changed from first evangelization to implantatio Ordinis, although the friars are still very involved in parochial work in the Mendi Diocese. The Mendi Diocese has had only two bishops in its history, both of them Capuchins. The ministry of the Vice Province is now shared by friars from the Mid-America Province and the Province of St. Joseph-Kerala. At various times in the past, there have also been friars from Great Britain, the Philippines, the Western America Province and the Holy Trinity Province in India.

Although the people of PNG lack many of the modern technologies that people in developed countries take for granted, they seldom lack basic necessities. The friars share this simplicity of Mendi Cathedrallife to a great extent. Their houses are simple wooden structures built by the friars themselves with mostly local materials. Although many of the houses are forty or more years old, they are comfortable and well-maintained by the friars. Since the Diocese has had a policy from its very beginning that the people are financially responsible for building their own churches, the churches also tend to be built from local materials and are easily maintained. Even the Mendi Cathedral (pictured) was largely built and financed by the people of the diocese. Despite, or perhaps because of the simple materials used in the churches, I found them very beautiful and prayerful.

Moving about the Vice Province is very challenging since the roads are quite rough. As we drove together from Mendi to Tari in his seventeen year-old car, Br. Bill Fey, the recently-elected Vice Provincial, remarked on how nice the road was, to which I responded, "You are easily impressed." Somewhat like Jesus, I could "count all my bones" at the end of the journey! Two days later, when we drove to Pureni, I understood why Br. Bill thought the Mendi-Tari road was good. Parts of the "road" to Pureni were what I would call a muddy path. Many of the outstations are not even accessible by road so the friars have to walk several hours to reach them.

The friars take all the physical challenges of the country into stride. They love their work and the people to whom they minister, a love that is obviously returned. Only a seriously illness could convince the American missionaries with whom I spoke to return to their native provinces. Br. John Antony expressed on several occasions that seeing the simple life of the friars made him feel that he was seeing Capuchin life as it was lived by the earliest friars. One might say it felt a bit like Paradise.

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