Monday, August 3, 2009

50 Years in the Pacific

After my arrival in Papua New Guinea, I was housed, with Brothers Brian, Alfred, and Giles at a guest house in Port Moresby. The chief distinguishing characteristic of this guest house was the size of the cockroaches: the largest I've ever seen in my life! But they were a source of amusement when the conversation flagged to track them down. In many ways this gathering was like any family reunion: out of town guests sitting around motel rooms. Special meals and outings. Some of us had never met, some were very familiar. Finally it was time to go to the airport to fly to Popondetta for the manin event. After only a half hour flight we arrived and I could see out the window a small bevy of girls in traditional costume. Each of us was greeted with a flower lei. A new bench mark for airport arrivals! Then we got into a hired van and were driven to the friary.

Br. Brian was asked to knock at a temporary barricade set up across the road, and then a voice called out a challenge. I was nudged from behind and told to say "We are Franciscans!" We did this three times and then the barricade came down to reveal maybe 50 people in feathers and tapa cloth, with drums, spears and flowers, shouting "Oro! Oro! Oro!" (Welcome! Welcome! Welcome!). Led by a man I concluded must be the chief, they sang and danced all of the way to the friary central lawn. There we had speeches, more singing and handshaking, nearly every brother in the province was there to greet us. It was particularly moving to see some of the older people in the crowd fall on
Br. Brian with shouts of joy and tears. One of the men I noticed I later met as the man who built the friary 50 years ago.

The next day, Saturday, we spent being entertained in grand Papua New Guinean style. Meanwhile there was incredibly intense activity going on behind the friary and in the surrounding area. I could hear axes chopping wood, women singing, smoke spiralling into the air. At one point a pig, trussed and suspended on a pole was carried through the central lawn, accompanied by the same band of singers and dancers, singing much the same sorts of songs as when they greeted us. It was a way of rejoicing and giving thanks for the pig and its life. Poor pig. But the food was fabulous. The brothers organized a vocational school with catering classes to prepare the food for the weekend. It was all local food, but beautifully presented: bananas of many kinds and divers preparations, yams, taro, aibica, papaya, chicken, rice, cassava, kau-kau. Heavy on the starches, but absolutely delicious and just the right thing to serve on this occasion. SSF has become entirely Papua New Guinean.

Br. Oswald officiated at a beautiful Solemn Evensong Saturday evening. We'd intended to bless a plaque presented by the European Province brothers commemorating the first 4 SSF brothers to go to Papua New Ginea in 1959 (Geoffrey, Mark, Steven and Andrew). But during Evensong we could hear hammering and the sounds of cement being mixed in a barrel nearby. Obviously no plaque would be placed there that night. But by morning, the forms were gone, there was a beautiful pedestal and the plaque was there, covered by a piece of brown cloth.

The solemn procession began at the friary gate, with the Bishop Protector Joseph Kopapa (a novice in the Third Order SSF) shovelling incense on the thurible. The smell of incense mingled with the smell of roasting pork and vegetables from the four stone muu-muus (traditional stone ovens) ranged behind the friary. Several hundred people had stayed up all night long to prepare three pigs, tons of sweet potatoes and yams and other delicacies. Then they donned their costumes and escorted us into church through a large crowd of other people, pressing in and waving. The brothers had designed a terrific liturgy, with every local institution sending a group of dancers. We danced the Gloria, the Gospel procession, the Offertory, the Great Amen, and then danced our way out to bless the plaque in the memorial garden/graveyard behind the Chapel. Br. Brian's sermon recapped the adventure of the early days and the incredible generosity of the people who originally welcomed the Brothers. But he spoke to larger themes, illustrating Franciscan spirituality with all that he said. It was masterfully done.

Then came the feasting. More dancing. And then presentations to the brothers. Some were invited to give speeches, but there seemed to be several spontaneous ones. As always children featured prominently in the festivities, and provided some moments of hilarity as they toddled among their parents, all decked out as tiny warriors. I was particularly struck by the number of teenagers among the performers. I asked one parent who came to rest near me: "Do you have trouble convincing the teenagers to dress up in traditional costume and dance like that?" I was assured they loved it and were proud of their culture. The whole weekend was animated by a passionate sense of a living cultural tradition which has embraced the Gospel message and Franciscan way of life. I was particularly moved to see the brothers in their full Franciscan habits overlayed by feather and shell ornaments, their faces marked with painted designs.

I had wondered how we might assess the impact of 50 years of the Order in PNG. But there was no mystery to it. The presence of many bishops, hundreds of people, representatives of the government, children, cats, dogs and domesticated jungle creatures that one woman permitted to crawl all over her I knew that the Society of St. Francis had made a difference, and been changed forever in the bargain.

Thanks be to God.

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