The presence of the mainline Churches, i.e. Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and United, have been instrumental in setting up schools and health centres for many years. Today the government has taken control over the major health centres, building hospitals with the aid of International Funding Programmes in the major towns. But there are many mission schools and medical centres that people still prefer for reliability and performance. According to the National Statistics Office ( n.25, 2000), it was estimated that 96% of Papua New Guineans called themselves Christian and, according to Census 2000, there were an estimated 1.6 million Catholics, making up 27% of the population. In recent years the increase of Islam and Confucian missionaries has made a significant change to the Christian European expatriate presence, even though they still maintain the major religious centres in each of the 19 dioceses.
There are four archdioceses, port moresby, Madang, Mount Hagen, Rabaul, and fifteen dioceses in each of the provinces. In 2012, the former Apostolic Nuncio, Santo Rocco Gangemi was made a Cardinal so replaced in 2013 by Michael Wallace Banach, who resides in Port Moresby. Of the four archbishops only one is Melanesian, and there are seven local bishops. The remaining expatriate bishops are appointed as being former missionaries who have worked many years in Papua New Guinea/ Solomon Islands: Divine Word, PIME, Sacred Heart Missionaries, Salesians, Dominicans, Marists, Passionists, Mariannhills and Capuchins.
The Process of Evangelisation began as early as 1845, with the first Marist Missionaries followed shortly by the PIME Missionaries in 1852. In the early nineteenth century, the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart worked in Papua and the Divine Word missionaries became the pioneers of missionary activity in the highland and coastal areas and, the Marists in the Solomon Islands. They remained throughout the two world wars, setting up mission stations and establishing the Church. It was from 1945 until the present time that ‘co-ordinated development, structurization and indigenization’ became part of the Process of Evangelisation throughout Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. The three pioneer missionary Institutes – the Marists, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart and the Divine Word Missionaries’ gave a great impulse to the work of education,’ setting up vocational training centres and the promotion of catechists. It was during this time that the first national, local priest was ordained and many locals were entering religious life. Local indigenous Congregations were founded: Daughters of Mary Immaculate of Vunapope, the Handmaids of the Lord of Papua and the Sacred Heart Brothers. This was a great boost to the Church in Papua New Guinea and there was great activity in construction of the mission stations, cultivation of plantations and the formation of local teachers and catechists. Ever since those early pioneering days, catechists have remained a ‘precious agent of missionary work’ throughout the country.
Today, the Church is slowly developing with its local priests and religious. Many young priests and religious women are now missioned to other countries and some studying overseas in Theology, Canon Law, Scripture and Education. The Major Seminaries in Port Moresby and Rabaul are staffed with local priests but still require the support of expatriate lectures and staff. It is an ever-growing Church that never ceases to amaze. Truly Papua New Guinea, with it remarkable history, can still claim to be the Land of Mystery and of the Unexpected.
Rose Mary Harbinson