Bougainville's vibrant Catholicism

Bougainville's vibrant Catholicism

Jonathan Doyle

Jonathan Doyle is a 30-year-old teacher, campus minister and boarding supervisor at a Marist secondary college in Cairns, Queensland. His wife is the college nurse and completing training as a life educator in Natural Family Planning. They are both involved in educating young people about marriage, the theology of the body and the need for abstinence.

Mr Doyle, his wife and a group of students recently completed a visit to Bougainville. He provides some impressions of the state of the Catholic faith there.

It is all too easy to be unaware of distant objects because one's vision is focused on things in close proximity. This is a case of being "myopic" and it captures how a recent trip to Bougainville deeply impacted on my understanding of the universal Church.

Taking four Year 10 students and my wife in November 2003 for two weeks to this small island was, for all of us, a life-changing experience. As a Campus Minister and teacher of religious education I was barely prepared for what God wanted to show us. I had been so focused on the challenges facing the Church in the First World I was overwhelmed at how busy the Holy Spirit has been in the South Pacific.

I have travelled the world, but, like most of my peers, it has always been in the comfort of a reasonable hotel or at worst an up-market backpackers. As such, Bougainville turned my world upside down.

Bougainville, for most Australians, is a place that, "has something to do with Papua New Guinea"; or "didn't some sort of civil war take place there?" Bougainville, I discovered, as do any visitors who immerse themselves fully in another place, culture and story, is so much more.

Marist Asia Pacific Solidarity (MAPS) is a Marist organisation that helps organise immersion experiences - a way for Australian students to travel to Marist schools in the third world and be fully immersed in the lives of their fellow students.

My most vivid memory is of our visit to the local "Ministri Skul" (Ministry School). Riding on the back of a truck with no windscreen, crammed onto the back tray with women and children we began to pass local villagers, many of whom had walked up to five hours to attend a Eucharistic service (in the absence of an available priest).

After a rough journey down a long jungle track we emerged into a clearing where a large number of local people were gathering around the Mabiri Ministri Skul, a diocesan training centre which runs live-in courses designed to equip the Catholic men and women of Bougainville for service to their local parishes.

The warmth and sincerity of the greeting was memorable, as was the simple yet powerful awareness of our being different. In Australia you are told about racial difference as you grow up but many of us have had little lived experience of being different. As I stood amongst my new family I experienced for the first time what it is like to be the odd one out. It was a valuable experience in itself.

A local village man, having just completed his qualifications, led the gathering in the Eucharistic service. The simple timber church was crammed to capacity, with traditional instruments such as pan-pipes and drums helping out with the liturgical music.

Sense of unity

Suddenly I realised that this was my Church, these were my brothers and sisters in Christ and they were very proud of their Catholic faith. It was a community, a family and a Church all in one. At the sign of peace, shy children and graceful older people came forward to bestow their peace upon my wife, our students and myself. The sense of unity for me was incredible. We had no common language, no shared history, but we shared "Jisas" and we shared a deep love for his Church.

After the service a meal was provided in a nearby classroom. As honoured guests we were invited to eat before anyone else. People from all the surrounding villages had carried food a long distance just to share with each other. At the completion of the meal a group of men who had been attending a live-in music minista's course began to sing the songs they had been developing. At this point tears welled in my eyes as I saw the tapestry of our magnificent God and how it is to His good pleasure that new songs of worship are being born in such a broken and wounded country.

The next two days allowed me to act as guest lecturer at their music course. I was able to work intensively with 25 men from all parts of Bougainville on the technical, pastoral and theological aspects of liturgical music. That time with them was inspired as I heard their stories and was overwhelmed by their pride in the Catholic Church.

Back in Australia I have totally given up trying to reply when people ask me, "How was Bougainville?" It is impossible to describe such a spiritual experience with words alone. What I can say is that I saw my Church again, I saw the bride of Christ rising in Bougainville. I saw simple men and women, male and female religious and the Bishop all pulling together. I saw people who love the Church and the way it brings unity and community back to their shattered war-torn lives. I saw joy in liturgy, seriousness in catechism, obedience, and actualised love of neighbour.

Here in Australia, we can fall into the trap of seeing the Church as a problem to be solved; in Bougainville it is a story to be lived, a family to be served, a destiny to fulfil. As I have always thought, the Gospel is the answer to the problems of our world. In Bougainville the civil war spilt an island into fragments, family against family, brother against brother.

I had the privilege of seeing the Catholic Church re-igniting the kingdom of God in the hearts and minds of the people of Bougainville. In the end I was not sure where the true poverty resides in our world. I went as a visitor and I returned as a missionary!

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