Missionary Methods in Papua New Guinea
The first Catholic missionaries arrived in Papua New Guinea in 1848. Priests and brothers of the newly founded Society of Mary (Marists) settled down on Woodlark Island and Rooke Island, the main island of what is now called Siassi Islands in the Diocese of Lae. A long period of technical and logistic preparations preceded the departure of Bishop Collomb and his team of Marists from Le Havre (France). Sailing via South America to Chile and from there zigzagging through the Pacific Islands down to New Zealand, Bishop Collomb and his team of two priests and one brother arrived after a long voyage of one year and three months in the region of New Guinea.
How were these zealous missionaries going to meet the challenges of their mission to a totally unknown and alien people and culture? How to pass on the Good News of Jesus Christ to the Melanesians dispersed over thousands of islands? The enthusiasm of the missionaries got a severe blow when, a few weeks after their arrival at Rooke Island, the leader of the mission and the Vicar Apostolic of the extensive Vicariate of Melanesia died of fever. Four months later one of the priests died also, leaving only one priest and one brother behind.
In spite of the great loss of two lives, the two remaining missionaries made the first attempts of evangelization by contacting the people. They operated from their house on the shore that the crew of the ship had built and went out to meet the people living in their surroundings. But it soon appeared that the European missionaries were ill-prepared for the challenge to communicate with the Melanesians, who observed the strangers with curiosity and scepticism. The two had first of all to try to survive in the harsh climate and lacked the skills to cope with practical things of daily life and particularly with health problems. They suffered much from malaria and fever. After all, the indigenous people looked upon them as poor men who were not able to face the many challenges of daily life in a tropical climate. They had little respect for them because they had nothing to offer them. It is understandable that in such a context nobody was interested in the attempts of the missionaries to proclaim the Good News. Their missionary method was also doomed to fail because the missionaries had the idea of planting a type of Western Church in an environment and culture that was totally strange to them. The bridge between Melanesian and the Western world was too big. After two years a ship came and the missionaries closed the station and left.
A second attempt by a team of missionaries of the Milan Mission Society, who arrived in 1850 and reopened the mission station at Rooke Island, remained also unsuccessful. The mission in New Guinea was abandoned two years later.
At the end of the 19th century French Missionaries of the Sacred Heart (MSC) and German Divine Word Missionaries (SVD) restarted the mission in New Guinea. They were better prepared for their task and aimed with their mission methods among the Melanesians more at the cultivation of the whole person. Intellectual education through schools and practical training in agriculture and various trades were the ways to improve the quality of life in which the Christian values of the Gospel could better develop to maturity.
It was especially in the period between the two world wars that large mission stations were erected with big plantations and all kinds of establishments and institutions for various groups of people: children, youth and adults. This method contributed much to a higher self-esteem of the people and to becoming more deeply rooted in their new way of Christian life.
At a later stage after WWII, many mission stations were rebuilt and new ones established. The Catholic Mission began opening up to new missionary understandings. The need was felt to make the people more aware that they are the Church - not the missionaries with their big stations and institutions - they are the People of God as Papua New Guineans. This increasing self-awareness resulted in more local people taking up responsibilities in their own church on various levels of their communities.
The great importance given to education on a higher level also resulted in the development of a young generation of Catholic leaders who became the founding fathers of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea, proclaimed in 1975. Many of the first generation of intellectuals and political leaders had gone through Catholic high schools and also seminaries, and contributed substantially to the drafting of the National Constitution that is expressly based on faith in God and on Christian and Melanesian values and principles. Today Papua New Guinea is 90% Christianized. The time of first evangelization of geographic territories is over. How does the Church understand her mission today and what methods are being used?
Instead of evangelizing tribes and territories, the challenge of missionizing lies in the many areas of the present society of Papua New Guinea. It is a matter of discerning, reading and interpreting the signs of the times, as mentioned in the Constitutions of the MariannhilI Missionaries. In this view there are many areas in Papua New Guinea that can be identified as challenges for missionary action. To mention only a few: priority of primary, secondary and tertiary education. The Divine Word University bas become a professional and highly appreciated institute for formation of future leaders. The importance of religious education, especially in high schools but also of the younger generation (Sunday School), as well as the spiritual accompaniment of university students, is being stressed. Work with and for women is being taken seriously as a method to improve family life. The Church supports actions against violence against women and children. Care for the sick especially AIDS patients, evangelization of prisoners, projects and actions of justice and peace, care for street kids, animating movements and organizations as the Legion of Mary, Couples for Christ, Antioch Youth, Women's Association, Men's Club - all of these are areas for missionary animation of the Christian way of life on various levels of society.
The role of the mass media and social communications has yet to be developed further as a missionary method to keep the Gospel values alive among the people. There is a weekly newspaper in Pidgin published by a Catholic Press, and a number of dioceses have their own broadcasting facilities in service of proclaiming the Good News and animating a Christian way of life. Much still has to be done in all these areas of missionary activities.
[Father Frans Lenssen, C.M.M., the author of the book The Missionaries of Mariannhill in Papua New Guinea: A Documentary of Their Mission in Lae, began to serve in Papua New Guinea in 1971.]
Father Frans Lenssen, C.M.M.