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Feast of the New Guinea Martyrs

Martyrs' Day: Tuesday 2nd September, 2014
Rowan Callick, journalist of the Australian Financial Review.

I'd like to preface my remarks by saying how honoured I am to be invited to preach in this wonderful church, which was my first Christian home in Australia after I migrated here from PNG, and where I was married. And it is marvellous that we have present our Primate and his wife Joy — big supporters of the PNG Church — and presiding over our mass, our distinguished Bishop Jeremy, who met me when I first arrived at Jackson's Airport in Port Moresby from England, to work as information officer for the diocese.

Papua New Guinea, as he and many here would testify, is a place that gets into the blood stream. Once there, always there. I'd prefer not to compare it with malaria, which also remains in my bloodstream from my days in PNG, but rather with a favourite melody, or a snatch of poetry, that recurs like a thread through life. A place of deep encounters. And sometimes, even for its own inhabitants, a place that is hard to read. One of Australia's greatest poets, James McAuley, spent time there, time that was very formative for him. He wrote:

There the great island lies, with its archaic bird-reptile shape. The smoking mountains speak low thunder, the earth shakes lightly, the sun glares down on the impenetrable dark-green mantle of forest with its baroque folds, the cloud-shadows pass over the green, a white cockatoo rises off the tree tops like a torn scrap of paper, like an unread message...

Many Australians used to know PNG, or had relatives or close friends, who knew it and probably obsessed a bit about it. That's all changed. It's now another "unknown." Not much read. But not, I suggest despite the poetic truths of McAuley's words, not unreadable, or unknowable.

Australia's failure to comprehend PNG compounded the antipathy that has been expended on the country, and especially on Manus — formerly famous for its peacefulness — since the unfortunate asylum seeker deal was forged between the Rudd and O'Neill governments 14 months ago. It seems much longer. A journalist and an MP called Manus "a hell-hole," a well-meaning asylum seeker activist and a radio host described the whole country as a hopeless, lost cause. None of those four have ever been to PNG. Former Prime Minister Rabbie Namaliu called me to say: "You have to wonder whether Australians were ever here, even though PNG is their closest neighbour."

Of course, that's not to mask genuine problems, and Rabbie would be the first to admit they are many — despite the country enjoying extraordinarily rapid economic growth, next year expected to top 20 per cent, the fastest rate in the world, in sheer kina terms. But what is that income doing, where is it going? I wrote last Saturday about new World Bank research showing that 81 per cent of businesses in PNG are restricting their investments there due to crime concerns — with 66 people in every 100,000 being murdered annually in Lae, for instance, one of the highest rates in the world. The bank reports — which were requested by the PNG government — say that violence there "can be understood, at least partly, as a result of the inability of both traditional and formal institutions to manage the stresses that have come with rapid economic growth, increasing migration" from country to cities, and other factors. The reports say this "constrains mobility of staff and clients, erodes trust, and reinforces stigma towards certain groups perceived to be dangerous, especially youth." ANU academic Sinclair Dinnen, probably the greatest expert on social dislocation in PNG, told me how international actors including the World Bank and Australian and other aid donors "keep plugging away at building up the formal institutions, but meanwhile the action has moved on." Scant action, he said, has resulted from devastating reports on corruption - "theft on a grand scale" and a major driver of other crime. But a middle class that is not dependent on the state is starting to emerge, and to urge bigger, structural changes, he said. "There are a lot of really good people in PNG struggling with these issues."

Slightly confusingly to Christian onlookers, those on every side of pretty well every debate and even every physical clash in PNG, routinely claim to have God on their team. Prime Minister Peter O'Neill is one. A man of mixed race, he has told me of his intense pride in both his parents — his mother from PNG's Southern Highlands, and his father, a patrol officer then magistrate who came from Williamstown just across the bay here, and devoted his life to PNG.

He spoke last week at a special parliamentary prayer lunch — breakfasts aren't really the thing for PNG politicians — about how the government is now directly funding church work, to deliver basic services, and about the covenant signed by Michael Somare on that day 7 years earlier "to give acknowledgement to our good Lord." Presiding was the Speaker, Theo Zurenuoc, who last December embarked on a purge of "all ungodly images and idols" in the Parliament. The Speaker started by ordering 19 ancient carved ancestral masks representing each of the provinces, to be chopped into pieces. O'Neill — the most powerful politician PNG has seen since Somare back in the independence era 40 years ago — eventually but only temporarily, I believe, stopped Zurenuoc from destroying a four tonne carved pole.

O'Neill has stressed that yes, there are material gains for his country from the asylum seeker arrangement, but that at its core he perceives it as a deal struck to help out Australia, which he has described as a friend in need.

This is a place in the relationship where we've been before. In rather more desperate days, when inadequately trained young rookie soldiers and often older militia members, were left to halt the Japanese advance over the forbidding Owen Stanley Range to Port Moresby and then, presumably, beyond, to what people there still call today Down South. The famous Fuzzie Wuzzie Angels, PNG's own volunteers, saved the lives of countless of our young countrymen on the Kokoda Track.

Near Kokoda itself is where we encounter most of our New Guinea Martyrs, our own especial heroes of today, and of every day.

Let's focus, in particular, on Vivian Redlich. He was born in 1905, in South Africa, and grew up in England, where his father was a rector. After training at Chichester theological college he was ordained, and came to Australia, serving five tumultuous years with the Bush Brotherhood in central Queensland, before heading up to the new frontier that was — and perhaps is — PNG. He returned in July 1942 to his church at Sangara in Oro province near Mount Lamington, from recuperating from illness at Dogura, full of the joys of life — because he was freshly engaged to a nurse with the mission, May Hayman. May grew up in Adelaide, and was nicknamed Merry. But the Japanese were already landing. On Saturday July 25 Fr Vivian gathered the community together and said (we know this because a government medical worker was present and later wrote an official report): "I am your missionary. I have come back to you to help you and I will remain with you as long as you will let me. Tomorrow is Sunday and I shall celebrate Holy Communion."

On the Monday, he wrote the following:

(from) Somewhere in the Papuan Bush
July 27th 1942
My Dear Dad
The war has busted up here. I got back from Dogura and ran right into it, and am now somewhere in my parish hoping to carry on, tho' my people are horribly scared. No news of May, and I am cut off from contacting her — my staff O.K. so far, but in another spot. I'm trying to stick whatever happens. If I don't come out of it, just rest content that I have tried to do my job faithfully. Last chance of getting word out: so forgive brevity. God Bless you all,

Bishop Philip Strong — who had asked the missionaries to stay at their posts — described Fr Vivian as "that happy, youthful, gifted, gallant soul." This letter to his dad was his last message. Soon after, he was killed — it now appears, by some local Orokaivan warriors attempting to curry favour with the new power in PNG — Japan. May was bayoneted to death by a Japanese soldier at around the same time.

Fr Vivian's farewell message can be seen today on display in St Paul's Cathedral in London.

It springs instantly to my mind every PNG Martyrs Day, because I worked for about a decade with Archbishop David Hand in Port Moresby, and Fr Vivian's story had a deep impact on him, and was a prime motivating factor pulling him to help rebuild the church community there after the war, arriving in 1946.

To my astonishment, after I had spoken 3 years ago at a Martyrs Day ABM event in Sydney, a tall and effervescent bloke bowled up to me and said "Thanks for the kind words about my brother." This was Fr Vivian's half brother Pat Redlich, now living in Sydney. Two years ago he completed an excellent book, My Brother Vivian, which you can order, I believe, at St Peter's Bookroom or via this website.

I recall strongly, accompanying a Japanese Bishop, John Okubo, who was the first representative of his church to travel to those scenes of martyrdom. I walked with him on the beach at Buna where Japanese soldiers beheaded several missionaries and others. He had himself been imprisoned during the war for his outspoken pacifism. I witnessed the bishop's tears that day.

Our readings for today speak fully of the spiritual battles swirling around these most intense events. They are appropriately hard readings but of course they also tell of ultimate grace and salvation.

Out of the depths I cry to you, Lord, says the psalmist.

Do not fear, do not let your hands hang limp, says the writer of Zephaniah. 'The Lord your God is with you.'

Paul affirms wonderfully in the crucial 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, in one of the great poetic passages of scripture, that: "neither death nor life, neither angels or demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord."

And Jesus Himself says in John's gospel: "Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me; where I am, my servant also will be."

Of course He does not say: Whoever serves me will become rich and gather coteries of fervent supporters who confirm my approval. For ours is not a gospel of success. We are not here to celebrate a church, in PNG or here, built on prosperity, on burgeoning crowds of instant adherents, on applause from the like-minded, and on unshaded happiness.

John paints Jesus' death as the climax of history, and the beginning of universal mission and of hope. This is not a message so remote from our own experience. Life and fruitfulness come from self giving. That's something, for instance, that those of us who are parents understand well — and all of us, who are also children. The truth is sometimes painful, but avoiding it amounts to a denial, as Peter discovered so devastatingly as the events in Jerusalem rapidly unravelled, everything — as Peter would naturally have seen it — getting out of hand, spinning out of control. Which is how Fr Vivian's world too must have seemed.

The other side of the coin from sacrifice is incorporation, gathering together into the life of the church, into the life of God. The material poverty of living in PNG — as missionaries or as members of the church there in other ways — means little in contrast with the richness, the fun, the joy, the loss of self, in daily life, in brotherhood and sisterhood, in true mutual acceptance.

Martyrs Day, or Witnesses Day, comes just a fortnight before that other great occasion for placing Papua New Guinea closer to our hearts: its Independence Day, September 16. So we think at this time of sacrifice and of new birth. Of fellowship, of troubles, of love, human and divine. Of friends and neighbours, including Papua New Guineans, only a canoe ride away but it so often seems a world apart.

Today is a time to close that gap, as we think about a core element of the faith we share, in PNG and here.

As corruption ate away at government services and political credibility, and crime grew, the people of PNG turned to their churches for comfort, for support, and of course for salvation. Their cries were heard. Churches have been growing throughout the country, because for decades they have demonstrated their integrity and their leaders have stood alongside the people.

That great leader John F Kennedy, also himself a martyr of sorts, wrote: "To be courageous requires no exceptional qualifications, no magic formulas, no special combination of time, place and circumstance. It is an opportunity that sooner or later is presented to us all."

Kennedy was for all his many flaws, a man of courage. So was Thomas More, the Man for All Seasons, who was also a man of conscience. He wrote in his final letters from the Tower of London where he was confined for 14 months before being executed, of the uniqueness of the individual conscience, while also viewing the formation of conscience as the fruit of an education "in the truth." Nothing could be further from the post-modern fad — now, mercifully, becoming passé — that there is no truth, only propaganda and self-promotion.

The cross which the New Guinea martyrs took up in 1942 is a place of truth. "Were you there?" the spiritual asks. We hear from our gospel, that Greeks were certainly there, eager to see Jesus. They were our representatives. Jesus opened himself to them. The New Guinea martyrs are also our representatives. We see them here, in the great memorial window designed by Napier Waller 68 years ago. The many present who have served in PNG, and indeed all of us here this evening, will look up to them in every way as we come to this rail to receive communion.

In what way were Fr Vivian or the other martyrs different from any of us? In what way are we facing our own challenges of conscience? The good news is that we can prepare ourselves for the big challenges that surely come to all of us. We can prepare ourselves through spiritual discipline and education in "the truth" for the life-changing confrontations that may come our way. How best can we do this? There is one way, one truth, one life through which we can do this, through constantly deepening our relationship with Jesus.

If anyone would serve me, let them follow me.


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