Missionary adventures in Papua New Guinea

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Fr. Boland in Papua New Guinea
Fr. Boland with other priests in Papua New Guinea
Ever since I was a boy sitting in grade school religion class, stories of missionaries intrigued me. I was romanced by saints such as Francis Xavier, missionary in China, and others who paved the way for the faith in so many different cultures. In the back of my mind, I always dreamt of being like them. I suppose I had a vision of adventure running around inside me, and I thought being a missionary could bring that vision alive.

Even though my youthful naïveté was tempered over the years by study, actual entrance into a religious community, and real life as a missionary, I don’t think I ever lost the sense that what I was doing was indeed an adventure. The desire for exploration is one of the things that keeps me getting out of bed in the morning. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you a bit of my life as a missionary in the islands of Papua New Guinea, where I lived for almost 10 years. I hope to return there again one day. My quest for adventure was realized there, to the brim and beyond.

A day in my life

A typical day for me as a pastor in Papua New Guinea could be filled with activities ranging from counseling to carpentry. I always had to be flexible in the islands. In my parish the church ran a hospital. Good quality healthcare given in an environment of faith has always been a priority for Catholics in Papua New Guinea. Often my day would begin with a visit to our health center. Most rural people in Papua New Guinea are poor subsistence farmers who are affected by tropical diseases. I could see Christ’s healing and compassionate presence in the dedication of many of our nurses and health workers. I was always searching, along with the parish health board, for ways to expand our health ministry.
Stations of the Cross in Papua New Guinea 

My parish also encompassed eight church-run community grade schools, a vocational school and two schools run by the government. Often my day would include visits to, classes for, or meetings with these various schools. I also gave regular retreats to our Catholic teachers. Education is a big challenge there. The number of illiterate people in Papua New Guinea is very high, more than 50 percent. This invites exploitation; therefore, educating people enough to make good decisions for themselves is important missionary work in Papua New Guinea.

Upon this rock

Another mainstay of my work was meetings with catechists. My parish, Lihir, consisted of four islands and 25 “local churches”—each with one or two catechists, who were the rock of the church there. They would minister on a day-to-day basis to the local communities—preparing people for the sacraments, holding church services on Sunday when there was no priest available for Mass, teaching religion in some of the schools, and so on. Because of the vast size of the parish, my presence in each little outpost was sporadic.

The catechists were the real church leaders. To me, the most important part of my ministry was helping these catechists to do their job well. I would try to see them as often as I could. We would hold regular meetings at our main parish station. It was quite a logistical feat to bring them all together. We would organize boats to bring in those from the outer islands, and our parish truck made many trips to bring in those from our main island. We usually met for an entire day or two. The catechists’ dedication to their work sustained me many times. I learned from them about being a sign of God’s love.

About three times a year, I would journey to our diocesan catechetical training center. There I would participate in teaching people who were training to be catechists. My part of the course, which lasted a week, was on Baptism and the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process. The general interest of people always was a source of strength for me. They knew that they had a vocation to fulfill in their local churches—helping their people to continue on the way toward becoming the Body of Christ.

Out on patrol

I did a lot of moving around in my large Papua New Guinea parish.I would often go on patrol and spend several days on one of our outer islands or on the other side of our main island. We traveled a lot by speedboat to our outer islands. Being out on the vastness of the South Pacific always called me to hand over my life to the Lord, and to put the work that I was doing squarely into his hands. For me, the ocean trips were times of prayer. I often used the ocean as an icon of the wideness and vastness of God’s love and care. Just as the earth needs the oceans to regulate the temperature of the planet to sustain life, so we all need the experience of God’s love to sustain us daily. I found Papua New Guinea a place very conducive to that kind of reflection.

We would often hold nighttime Bible-sharing groups in the villages and encourage people to speak about what was happening in their lives and how Christ was working with them, particularly during days of tremendous social changes. One of these changes was taking place during my years there. My parish, Lihir, has one of the world’s largest gold deposits. After years of exploration and preparation, an agreement between the government, the people, and the mining companies was signed in early 1995. 

Young girls baking at home in Papua New Guinea 

By 1997, the production of gold had commenced. Before the mine, the people lived very simply and traditionally, earning a bit of money by selling dried coconut, cocoa, or garden produce. With the mine, life changed drastically with new ways of living and relating. In another part of Papua New Guinea conflict had broken out in a mining center, resulting in thousands of deaths. All of us knew we wanted to avoid that. So a large part of my missionary life involved helping people talk about, plan for, and live with the fast-paced social revolution occurring in their midst. The grace-filled years I spent in Papua New Guinea whet my appetite for wherever the Lord sends me in the future. The adventure continues!

Father Steve Boland, M.S.C. belongs to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart.




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