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New Guinea Martyrs' Day Observance

Martyrs' Day, Ordinary Sunday 22: 1st September, 2002
Rowan Callick, journalist of the Australian Financial Review.

I am with you to save you and rescue you.
Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ?
I shall draw all people to myself.

Great words. This day, New Guinea Martyrs' Day, is a great day, perhaps the greatest of all days for our proud corner of the Anglican Church. It is also, and in its true sense, an awe-ful day. A day to fill us with awe, awe for our God, and awe for what our sisters and brothers in faith can both suffer for and achieve through our God. It is a day for us to look both back in time and forward, meditating on our own sacrifices, our own commitment, as individuals and as a church.

I shall get to that still shocking time in 1942. But first to the present.

The people of Papua New Guinea have just gone through a traumatic election that cost 30 lives. In The Highlands, the country's most populous region, about 1 million adults live but almost 2 million votes were cast. In the Southern Highlands, the hapless wife of a polling official was shot dead when she opened the door of her home to a gang looking to hijack ballot papers. Most of the elections there were ruled invalid. This is the wealthiest province of the country, PNG's Texas, its oil and gas field. Yet it is today ruled by warlords who control armed mercenaries who operate machine guns from armour-plated, converted utes.

Shortly before the election, Roman Catholic women of the Southern Highlands met to issue this heartfelt appeal for peace: "We live in constant fear. There is No Law and Order in the province. The roads are dangerous to travel, homes have been ransacked, there are many killings, numerous rapes, break and entries, torturings, threats, kidnappings. Our children are infected by this virus. Our peaceful town and home province has turned into an evil place. It is a cancer that is effectively destroying our province quicker and more devastatingly than the epidemic of Aids."

"Mipela i salim bikpela sori" (We offer up our grief) concludes Grace Sui, president of the Catholic Women's Association. "Mipela i pre bai God i ken givim yumi belisi long dispela taim nogut." (We pray that God may send us peace and deliver us from this evil time)

Such prayers can be and are answered by God – but generally through His human agents. Who will be that agent for Grace's prayer? Who will step up to help her and her fellow mothers, wives and daughters gain bel isi, peace? Yes, Grace will be hoping to be helped by her fellow countrymen and women, the new Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare and his quite impressive team – yet another "last, best hope" to avoid collapse.

But who else can she look to – who, in our globalising world? By far the biggest role that Australians can play internationally is in the Pacific island region which we dominate. It remains however a role that Australia tends to shun – partly because of a concern about the tyranny of size that is as crippling as the tyranny of distance about which Geoffrey Blainey wrote. Just as we feel marginalised by our comparatively small population when relating to Asia, so we tend to feel anxious about appearing Big Brother to our island neighbours. Many in the islands however, who despair of the corruption of their own tiny elites, wish that Australians would express an appetite for a bigger role.

Almost all of the island countries, whose populations like people everywhere aspire to improved living standards, are instead witnessing the reverse: population growth outstripping economic growth, rainforests and fish stocks being plundered, living standards in decline, unlike even the poorest nations in neighbouring Asia.

In PNG, a journalist friend of mine earlier this year interviewed Grace Murua, a young woman from Tufi, an Anglican, who is teaching at a government primary school up in the Managalas mountains in her home Oro province, still unconnected by main road. The parents there do all they can to help, but Grace and a male colleague are the only teachers for all 400 children in the school. She met my friend in Port Moresby where she had gone to try to get paid after two months with no wages. She was concerned about this, and about the capacity of the two teachers to meet the children's full needs. But she remained otherwise bright and enthusiastic. She said: "The children are a pleasure to teach because they are so willing to learn. We can grow fresh food. We have plenty of rivers to wash in, and planes come once a week." Try mentally transposing that situation to country Victoria today.

Solomon Islands is in anguish following its coup of June 2000, which shows no sign of abating, as you know well at St Peter's through your own wonderful support for Father Sam Ata, his wife Doreen and their family. Last week an Anglican priest, Father David Augustine Quve, the Minister for Youth and Women's Affairs, was shot dead. The Roman Catholic bishop of Western Solomons, Bernard O'Grady, an Australian Dominican, told me a few weeks ago of the breakdown of trust. People no longer looked you in the eye as they passed, he said; a shocking condition, for anyone who has lived in or even travelled in Melanesia, whose people are such naturally gracious hosts. As in the Southern Highlands, automatic weapons remain the passport to control in the community. The Solomons economy contracted 18 per cent in 2000 and 15 per cent in 2001. Teachers and hospital workers are not being paid. John Roughan, a former missionary brother from Australia who is a leading community activist there, says: "The reasoning behind the coup was to control the political process more easily and fully access money. Politics has become the economy." Priests are also dying in PNG. Two much loved Roman Catholic missionary priests have been killed there during the last year, as was a Lutheran pastor from the Highlands as he ministered to a family in Port Moresby.

To stress: The Pacific islands is the only part of the world where Australia is the dominant player, alongside New Zealand. This has become doubly so since the end of the Cold War, after which the major powers effectively quit the region. Pacific islanders know Australia well. They eat Vegemite, some of them play Aussie Rules; more play rugby, both codes. They like Australians. And they are overwhelmingly committed churchgoers, though as anywhere they are not immune from the hijacking of religion for gain. Bill Skate, today the Speaker of PNG's Parliament and clearly its worst Prime Minister some time before that, recently made one of his regular emotional appearances on the platform of one of the growing number of high-powered, itinerant American pentecostalist preachers who attract huge audiences when they tour PNG. Skate said that night, to people who shortly afterwards re-elected him: "They think I am one of the most corrupt politicians in the South Pacific, but I can tell you that I am not. I have been made righteous by my Lord Jesus." Amen.

The majority of the populations of the Melanesian countries closest to Australia – PNG, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu – are either Anglicans or Roman Catholics. It is their membership of a world-wide religion that does most to overcome their sense of remoteness and isolation; how is that sense of membership affirmed and reciprocated?... I suggest that the world, even the Anglican and Roman Catholic world, knows and cares – the two actions are intimately related – distressingly little of what its Melanesian brothers and sisters must face, and do achieve. The militias that fought over Honiara airport, Henderson's Field, were kept apart for days by the incredible bravery of Melanesian Brothers, an indigenous Anglican order. The courageous group of citizens for democracy who gathered throughout the Fiji coup of two years ago to pray and campaign for peace was led by church people and met daily at the Anglican cathedral in Suva. Those martyrs of 1942 included, of course, two Papua New Guineans.

The Anglican Church of PNG has been tested again in the dark days of crime, corruption and the collapse of living standards over the last decade or more, to a degree than might almost be compared with the challenges under Japan. Less black and white, but as debilitating. And it has come through that challenge, as have the other major churches, which are now viewed by the ordinary people of the country as their last great hope and source of continuing schooling and health care even as the government services have collapsed.

The Anglican Archbishop of PNG, James Ayong –alongside whom I once worked when we were both laymen employed by the archdiocese, as was Tevita Talanoa, now Bishop of Dogura – issued an Easter message last year, in which he noted that our gospel writer, John, was living "among a people already beginning to experience persecution." The Archbishop writes: "John knew that God moves most powerfully in the human situations that seem most hopeless: we know that the moment of danger is a holy moment, a moment over which the Spirit hovers lovingly. If we do not share the pain of worldly failure when it comes to one part of our nation, if we abandon one another, we lose the gift of paradox, which is God's primary way of interacting with the human condition. We cannot know the risen Christ if we shrink from the crucified Christ." How apt for us too. What if we abandon not one part of our nation but a prominent part of our neighbourhood?

PNG is by far the biggest field of endeavour for AusAID, and for some of our non government aid agencies. Our Federal Government's most senior Ministers meet annually with their PNG counterparts. Many of our most senior businesspeople remain extraordinarily well informed about PNG.

And what of our own church?

The era of decolonisation and postmodernism appears to have had one of its greatest and more lasting impacts on those elements of Australia's churches, including sections of our Anglican church, that had become lured by the diverting idol of secular "relevance". Oddly, during this confused period in the latter part of the last century, the voices of those in developing countries were not heard any louder; indeed, they were sometimes drowned out by those in the wealthier lands like Australia who claimed to speak for them, and to be carping on their behalf about the very concept of mission.

It is long overdue for us to put these cul de sacs and false steps behind, and to offer a true Pacific Solution. Africa yes, continues to suffer its unspeakable tragedies, and if we have the resources to help people suffering everywhere so we should. But I suggest that our linked history, geography, and faith with the islands and especially PNG and Solomon Islands, should compel our most immediate attention, prayers, alms; and, yes, mission, acting of course in all directions at once.

It is time for us, especially this day, to honour, unequivocally, the noble goals of mission and of missionaries.

I invite you all to look again today at Napier Waller's wonderful window, dedicated in October 1946. Its conception, that of Canon Maynard, was to depict beauty, truth and goodness – attributes of God Himself – as revealed in the church of PNG. The beauty of nature, of innocent children learning truths from a missionary teacher – the window honours especially and appropriately the women who have always played a leading role in the PNG church. The beauty of the cathedral church of St Peter and St Paul, Dogura at its consecration, the truth expressed in the words of that service, the goodness of God in the sacraments, with the priest clothed in purple at the altar because, as Bishop Philip Strong said in preaching here 21 years ago today, "it is through suffering that we enter into glory and triumph." Bishop Philip was of course the leader of the church in PNG at that fateful hour in 1942 when the missionaries responded to his call for them to stay at their posts. We see evil, today as then, attacking but failing to conquer beauty, truth and goodness. And, of course, we see everywhere: sacrifice.

This is a quality that is quite opposed to the dominant spirit of our age. On my way to work from Flinders Street Station every day, I pass a little fly-poster with which I have some sympathy. It shows a hand plunging a television set into a large bowl full of water, and says below: "Enough. Build Your Own Reality." But no. We can't. A reality already exists, one we must acknowledge, even if it is one that we must struggle to change. Ours is an age of self-centredness, of self-deception, of "empowerment", of "self-realisation." Yet what passion, what life, we miss if these narcissistic goals consume us. There can be few more thrilling yet awe-ful letters than that written by the young Father Vivian Redlich, the last letter he wrote, addressed to his father from "somewhere in the Papuan jungle" where he had remained to look after his Papuan flock, and to be with his new fiance, the nurse May Hayman. Bishop Philip described Fr Vivian as "that happy, youthful, gifted, gallant soul." My former boss Bishop David Hand offered himself as a replacement for Fr Vivian, who was cruelly killed as the Japanese advanced. Can we not even consider ways to meet the great challenge of our neighbourhood today, to lobby our church and government leaders, to act ourselves, in the search for a true Pacific solution?

New Guinea Martyrs' Day has been faithfully observed here at St Peter's for 54 years now. Its message is clearly an enduring one, that goes out from and far beyond those martyrs. It is that sacrifice made with a pure heart is never in vain. Unless a wheat grain falls into the earth and dies, it remains only a single grain.

The other side of the coin from sacrifice is incorporation, gathering together into the life of the church, into the life of God. I am with you to save you. There are many here this morning who can testify that the material poverty of living as a missionary in PNG meant little to them in contrast with the richness, the fun, the joy, the loss of self, in daily life, in brotherhood and sisterhood, in true mutual acceptance.

Finally, we are sure that Our Lord knows this because he lived it all Himself. And died. And rose. He expects us to do nothing he did not do himself first. He too, because he was fully human, wavered for a while, standing at the brink. In our gospel this morning, Jesus is speaking just after entering Jerusalem for the last time, on a donkey, to shouts of Hosanna! But Our Lord alone hears the ominous relentless drumming leading to the shockingly close climax. "Now my soul is troubled," he says, in a passage that echoes the scene in the garden of Gethsemane in the other gospels. When Jesus asks: "What shall I say: Father, save me from this hour?" this is no rhetorical question. The answer seems for a time in genuine contention, as in the scene set in the garden – Jesus' comrades sleep in exhaustion beside him. But then he sets his face and his feet again towards "the very reason that I have come to this hour." Our Lord surely knows well the meaning of sacrifice. Can anything cut us off from the love of Christ? Unshakeably, no.

Almighty God, there is no greater love than to give our lives for you, and for our friends. Grant us the courage to make our own sacrifices. And may we, in the company of your martyrs, gaze with joy upon the face of Christ.


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