By KEVIN PAMBA
PAPUA New Guineans who grew up in rural and remote areas in the formative years of our country would recall Christmas and Easter as two major and important occasions at their local churches.
These were the occasions when just about every able-bodied person left their hamlets and villages to attend church.
The church building was usually in a central location between a group of hamlets and villages or at the mission station which was always the centre of the universe for these rural communities.
The mission station provided them a sense of modernization with the presence of the Christian denomination and the Caucasian missionaries in their midst who brought services such as a school, health clinic, trade store, sawmill and so forth.
In the good old days of the 1970s and early 1980s, I recall the many hamlets and villages of my paternal tribe being more or less empty on Sundays as our people walked to Mass.
Mass was at the main St Clare’s Parish church at the Catholic Mission Station at Amburungi on the southern end of Ialibu government station. Christmas and Easter church services at this Southern Highlands parish were grand occasions not only for my paternal tribe but to other tribes who had converted to the Catholic faith as of 1956 onwards.
This was the year when the Catholicism was first introduced in the district after the colonial administration “derestricted” the area for missionaries and other outsiders to enter.
By the early 1980s my tribe had scored 100 percent conversation to Catholicism and the tribe contributed the first indigenous Diocesan priest for the Diocese of Mendi in Fr Simon Apea (now deceased) by the first Bishop of the diocese Firmin Schmidt OFM Cap (now deceased) in December 1977.
This was due to the hard work of pioneer Franciscan Capuchin missionaries from the United States led by Fr Henry Kusnerik OFM Cap (who has since died in 1990 while on retirement back in the US).
Christmas and Easter Church services were extra special for the people.
They were grand occasions where people from everywhere could be together in one place.
The rendition of the nativity story through drama by the parishioners during Mass on Christmas Eve at St Clare’s Parish church was a not-to-be-missed event for children and adults alike.
The Nativity drama was spiritually enriching as much as it was fun.
Those dramas at Christmas left a lasting imprint on the children.
The times after the end of Mass were a jolt back to reality for the elderly and young children who had to walk for an hour or more back to their villages and hamlets in the typically chilly and often wet Ialibu night.
Nearly everyone walked barefoot on the limestone karanas (gravel) road. (Footwear that village kids and teenagers of today often demand from their parents is a luxury we never knew).
Some who could not walk in the cold rainy night had to ‘polish the floor’ of the church building until the next morning.
These few setbacks were hardly deterrents when the next Christmas Eve Mass came around and excitement again peaked.
Back in those days, there were hardly any ‘distractions’ for the people, young and old alike, and Mass and events around the Church were often pinnacle occasions attracting multitudes from all corners of the district.
Mass and other church events were occasions when former tribal foes left their grudges and resentments and came together in peace for one purpose – to receive the Word of God.
Fast forward to 2017.
People still go to Christmas church services.
But this grand occasion in the Christian calendar competes with all the ‘attractions’ of an increasingly consumer-driven society where some of the entrepreneurs are allowed to trade non-stop offering their “Christmas Specials” while community do-gooders stage their Christmas sports tournaments “to keep youths away from trouble” and “instill discipline and self-respect in the young.” Christmas Mass and church services also compete with the modern
versions of cultural ceremonies such as moka, bride price exchanges, compensation payments and peace talks that seem to be incessant and ever-increasing.
For many cultural ceremonies, we hear people say “move it (the occasion) to Christmas” because that is when the working class and students will be on holidays and would take part.
We indeed live in challenging times when enriching occasions that have built the foundation of our society such as the Christmas Mass or church services have to compete with all other modern considerations.
By KEVIN PAMBA