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The embracing work of the churches in PNG society

Tom Ellis  Bishop George Bernarding  Fr Arnold Steffen
Kiap Tom Ellis with Bishop George Bernarding and Fr Arnold Steffen


DUBLIN – Contributor Ross Howard, writing recently in PNG Attitude, has eloquently provided us with an historical background to the debate about science and the church.

Perhaps it’s worthwhile, in commenting on the role of the churches in the development of Papua New Guinea, to look very briefly at the contribution of the churches in the fields of education and health.

Bishop George Bernarding, former Bishop of Mt Hagen, once told me that in the period after World War II the Catholic mission wanted to start an English-speaking school at Kondiu in Simbu but the Australian administration was not in favour saying Pidgin schools would be quite adequate.

The Diocese of Mt Hagen eventually established two high schools, Fatima and Notre Dame, and numerous community schools in what was then Western Highlands District. To the best of my knowledge the District Commissioner, Tom Ellis, was most supportive.

Back in 1963 the Catholic Church had already established Holy Spirit Seminary as a tertiary education institute.

Initially developed in the Madang area, it later moved to Bomana and is now known as the Catholic Theological Institute.

At that time Archbishop Noser in Madang also wanted to establish a university. The then Australian administration did not support his efforts but pressure from several sources forced the Australian authorities to establish the University of PNG in 1965.

Graduates from Holy Spirit Seminary in those early years, people like Ignatius Kilage, John Momis, Peter Kurungko, Leo Hannet, Francis Misso and Fred Reiher, all played important roles in the development of the country. Momis in particular was very much involved in the development of the PNG constitution and is now, of course, president of Bougainville.

In the health sector, I think of the great work of the Nazarene mission through the excellent hospital at Kudjip in Jiwaka, the Seventh Day dvetist work with leprosy patients, the Catholic hospital at Vunapope and the Lutheran School of Nursing in Madang.

These are just a few examples and most of the churches have made a great contribution in providing health services which complement rather than compete with the health services provided by the government.

As recently as 2014, a report from the Western Highlands Provincial Health Authority stated that 59% of all health services in the province were church operated.

While this figure would not be the same for all provinces, it is indicative of the overall scenario in PNG where churches continue to run many health centres, especially in rural areas.

On the cultural side it can be noted that the Summer Institute of Linguistics does not confine itself only to bible translation but is also dedicated to vernacular language development and translation of community-oriented materials.

Wantok Niuspepa
Keen readers of Wantok Niuspepa

PNG may be one of the few places where several mainline churches - including Lutheran, United, Anglican and Catholic - came together to establish a research institute, the Melanesian Institute based in Goroka which undertakes professional social, cultural and religious studies.

The same mainline churches also came together to establish Word Publishing, which publishes Wantok newspaper.

I might not agree with all the teachings of the Seventh Day Adventists, but I respect what they have achieved in providing good health services in so many areas.

I personally believe that there is room for change in the Catholic Church but I also see the tremendous work achieved in areas like health and education by the church and individuals working for it.

And turning to the existence of the supernatural, all I can say is that I have at times experienced some things in life that I do not understand and cannot  explain. My mind is open.

“There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” said William Shakespeare in his play Hamlet.


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Garry Roche

Phil, thanks for your comments. However I could give you a list of embarrassing errors and mistakes that I myself have made, but it would take too long. I could name many many missionaries who have been more faithful and consistent than I have.

If Ken Logan, former Kiap, was still alive he could elaborate further on some of my failings, as could some of my own colleagues.

I do respect the courage and honesty of those who are open about their atheism, and if criticism of the churches makes us a bit more self –critical then it can be helpful.

Philip Fitzpatrick

Being an atheist is a personal thing that I worked out for myself when I was about ten or eleven.

I'm a vegetarian too and I worked that one out by myself as well.

Both are positions that I feel comfortable about and, unlike Dawkins et al I've got no desire to force them on other people.

I suspect that most atheists are similarly inclined - in much the same way that many Christians are inclined to do with their beliefs.

I dislike pushy atheists just as much as I dislike pushy Christians.

That's not to say that my atheism doesn't inform my thoughts on different matters.

As for Catholics, I think if all the priests and nuns were like Garry the world would be a much better place.

Ross Howard

Most of the churches did good work in the areas of education and health.

On a personal note, my mother was educated by Catholic nuns in Port Moresby, and I owe thanks to the sisters of the Catholic hospital at Megende, Chimbu, for the birth of my first child.

A good account of the history of the Catholic Church in PNG was written by Georges Delbos: “The Mustard Seed: From a French Mission to a Papuan Church, 1885-1985”.

Unfortunately many atheists fail to grasp that science is limited to the empirical, natural world and is incapable of saying anything about a non-empirical, spiritual realm—except to deny it exists.

In “The God Delusion” (2006), the militant atheist Richard Dawkins wrote:

“Whether we ever get to know about them or not, there are very probably alien civilizations that are superhuman, to the point of being god-like in ways that exceed anything a theologian could possibly imagine.”

So Dawkins can conceive of “god-like” beings, but only in the far distance, not so close where they might be a constraint on his own ego.

Philip Fitzpatrick

As an atheist I try to be careful to separate in my mind the great work that the missions have done and continue to do in PNG and their proselytising of beliefs that are, in my mind at least, not dissimilar to the myths of primitive people.

PNG would have done very well I think if there had been secular missions instead of religious ones doing good work there.

Of all the missions in PNG the Catholics seemed the most comfortable separating these two things when required.

Their attitude to leaving alone practises that had no bearing on their proselytising, such as how people dressed always impressed me.

I guess good people intent on making a positive contribution to the world are attracted to the missions simply because there are few other places for them to go.

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