Alternative for advancing the mission in Melanesia

A different route brought one of our Filipino confreres to Papua New Guinea and eventually, this confrere became a member of the Vincentian International Mission Team. Father Joel Bernardo, CM came to Papua New Guinea as a staff member of the Melanesian Institute (MI) in October 2015. That institution is a distinguished socio- pastoral Institute based in Goroka (Eastern Highlands Province). Since 1969 the Institute has been assisting the missions and missionaries through their social research, publications, in-service trainings and culture-related courses. Father Joel’s involvement in development work and his academic background in Social Anthropology made him an appropriate candidate to serve at the Institute which over the years has been involved with such issues as inter-congregational ministry and inter-cultural living, ecumenism, etc.

In the beginning, Father Joel was asked to coordinate a Cultural Orientation Course (COC) for missionaries. Three Vincentian confreres, Marceliano Oabel, CM and Marcin Wroebel, CM (ministering in Papua New Guinea), and Fr. Anthony Punnoth (based in the Solomon Islands), participated in the three-week course that was designed to promote missionary understanding of the very diverse societies and cultures of Papua New Guinea. The Institute also supported initiatives to expand and diversify in-service courses with ‘mini-courses’ for indigenous missionaries. Early in 2017, Father Joel was invited to conduct a pioneering “cultural appreciation course” for a group of religious women. The various sessions underscored the need for a personal appreciation of one’s indigenous culture as key to understanding cultural diversity and promoting inter-cultural experiences in the mission.

Our confrere was recently requested by his SVD colleagues at the Institute to facilitate sessions for the SVDs ministering in the Simbu-Goroka (SimGo) district. These sessions were so successful that the SVD congregation invited him to offer similar sessions to other groups of missionaries who were ministering in the highlands.

The Vincentians have only “recently” begun ministry in Melanesia (Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands). Nevertheless, our ministry there has placed us in some very strategic areas. Thus, we are ministering on the South-Eastern most Maritime Province of Milne Bay and the South-Western border with Indonesia and Australia in the Western Province. We are also ministering with ethnically distinct indigenous groups, such as the ‘Goilalas’ of the Central Province and the ‘Trobrianders’ of Milne Bay. We are established in rural areas (the communities of Woitape and the island villages of Kiriwina) as well as urban areas (Port Moresby in suburbs of Bomana and mainland Alotau). We also have a centralized formation house that ministers on behalf of the future clergy for all the ecclesiastical dioceses of Papua New Guinea.

These strategic mission stations also present potential sites for enhancing the services of the Institute which, at the same time, would allow Father Joel to provide assistance to other Vincentian missions. In 2016, as part of a project on Marriage and Family Life, some preliminary research was conducted among the village communities in parishes administered by the Vincentians (Alotau, Kiriwina, Bomana) After the recent Vincentian retreat in Alotau (May 2017), Joel stayed on for follow-up work in Milne Bay (Alotau mainland, Normamby, and Kiriwina Island). This involved directing sessions on critical issues of Family Life. Our confrere has also facilitated sessions with the diocesan seminarians, including a recent session on the sensitive issue of “Clergy and their involvement in politics in Papua New Guinea”.

The mobility of Father Joel has enabled him to support the revival of the St. Vincent de Paul Society in this country. Our confrere assisted a team from Australia (a team composed of members of the Vincent de Paul Society from that continent) assess the status of long-existing SVDP conferences in the highland dioceses. The side-visit to Alotau further enhanced prospects for diocesan-wide promotion of the Society in the diocese under the care of our Vincentian Bishop, Rolando Santos.

Father Joel’s work among the Massim societies of Milne Bay (in Alotau Diocese) builds upon the Institute’s strategic option for ethnographic research in the coastal and maritime area in order to complement its work in the highland region. At this time, the Institute is collaborating with grassroots communities through an approach known as Participatory Action Research (PAR). The Trobriand Islands, where two confreres are based (Frs. Homero Marin and Marceliano Oabel), serve as a strategic site for alternative processes that involve building community capacities for grassroots research, project management, advocacy and cultural promotion. Our confrere has just completed the preliminary processes of training and forming grassroot research teams, whose members are embarking on a nine-month phase of village-to-village consultation and data-gathering.

These ongoing efforts to regionalize our ministry will eventually enable our confrere to collaborate with other Vincentian teams ministering in West Papua, ministering along the Papua New Guinea -Indonesian border and the Solomon Islands.

Fr. Joel Y. Bernardo, CM
The Melanesian Institute for Pastoral and Socio-Economic Service P.O. Box 571
Goroka, Eastern Highlands Province
Papua New Guinea
Edited for publication: Charles T. Plock, CM Eastern Province, USA