Papua New Guinea’s northernmost province rejoices in the visit of the Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima
By Paul Folley
Every visitor to Papua New Guinea is struck by the warmhearted hospitality of its people. The second thing that becomes obvious are the great differences between the inhabitants scattered across the 462,840 square kilometres of this amazing country. There are an astounding seven hundred languages and dialects spoken.
In October, I spent several weeks travelling there as custodian of our Pilgrim Virgin of Fatima statue. The statue was venerated for several days in the capital of Port Moresby’s cathedral but the focus of the pilgrimage was the far northern province of Manus.
Manus Island is an emerald green jewel in an aquamarine sea. It is the largest of the archipelago that makes up Manus Province, a place of awesome beauty.
First port of call
A team of local people had done an admirable job organising this pilgrimage – or ‘walkabout’ as they call it. Boats are the main way to travel around Manus, so our party spent two weeks in a small flotilla of motorised canoes moving from island to island and village to village.
Our first port of call was the island of Pityilu. As our boats drew near I peered at the thick forest running down to the shoreline and for all the world it looked completely uninhabited. Then, on the wind, faintly at first, now stronger, came the unmistakable sound of drumming. The garamut drums were announcing our arrival and sending us greetings.
Houses began to appear amidst the trees. Rounding a headland, the beach opened before us; the landing place that leads to the heart of the village. Suddenly a troupe of dancers burst upon the beach, followed by the village elders, with the whole population in tow. The sea around us was alive with canoes, some with their own drummers and dancers. In fact everyone seemed to be dancing with joy and excitement in anticipation of the visit of Our Lady.
This scene repeated itself at every village: the dancers, the garamut drums, the formal greetings, the bestowal of ceremonial gifts on Our Lady and the visitors. The people of Papua New Guinea are very ceremonious and an elaborate protocol had to be followed at each visit.
The most impressive memory though is the great faith and devotion of the people. For them this was the very real arrival of the Queen of Heaven and Earth to their villages. No effort was spared to show her respect and honour. Every village was decorated and spruced up for the occasion, and everyone turned out in their finest clothes, prized beads and headbands.
Struggle for survival
Some villages hint a degree of prosperity and well-being, with a spacious central square and well-laid-out streets. Others give the impression of desperate want. For all of them though there is a constant struggle for survival unknown in the affluent First World. Our boats carried boxes of basic medicines for free distribution. We also carried thousands of communion hosts and bottles of altar wine. Some remote villages are lucky to see a priest once a year and our chaplain was always busy with confessions.
Few villages have running water or electricity. A petrol generator might be used for special occasions but petrol is very expensive in Manus.
Life is lived at the mercy of nature. The great king tide of 2008 swept away homes and livelihoods. Yet in these extreme conditions Our Lady often shows her special solicitousness. The people of one island prayed to her for protection during the king tide and their prayers were answered in an amazing way. Not only was their village spared but the king tide dumped a pile of coral gravel offshore, forming a small island to protect the village in future. Fittingly, before we entered the village we were invited to land on the new island for a ceremony naming it the Island of Our Lady of Fatima.
“Let this day be a new beginning”
Back in Lorengau town, the provincial capital, we had a very busy few days visiting homes, schools, the hospital and the prison. The prisoners welcomed Our Lady with the most sincere and beautiful of ceremonies. Also touching was the visit to the headquarters of the regional government, where the Provincial Administrator and other officials dedicated their government to Our Lady.
While we were away touring the islands the local police station had been ransacked and burned by an angry mob. This is a not infrequent event in Papua New Guinea, a symptom of the strife and disorder plaguing the country. The commanding police sergeant asked for Our Lady to visit the ruined building and in a moving ceremony it was dedicated to her. A large crowd stood watching and everyone was filled with a sense of forgiveness and peace. Now will begin the work rebuilding and restoring trust. “Let this day be a new beginning for our police station and for the people of Lorengau,” declared the sergeant, gazing at Our Lady with tears in his eyes.