Bomana, Port Moresby, PNG, 14 October 2021 -- Last August 2021, eight of us, seminarians from the Holy Spirit Seminary in Bomana, went for a holiday experience in West Kerema, Gulf province. It was a lifetime experience for us to see and experience the life the missionaries are living and doing in that remote, difficult area which belongs to one of the least developed provinces in the country. It was our desire to go and see Kerema, as the famous slogan in Tok Pidgin goes,“Kerema yu no save, yu yet kam na lukim!” (You don’t know Kerema till you come and see). All thanks to the Salesian Community in Araimiri for accepting us, especially Fr. Joseph Thanh SDB, a missionary from Vietnam, who is currently the parish priest of Mary Help of Christians Parish Araimiri, who really made it possible for us to reach Kerema, Araimiri and finally reach our destination in Herehere village, where the parish priest lives.
We stayed there for nine days, and every day was a new and wonderful experience, sharing each other’s company with the people in the village during the day, and by night we slept in the house of the parish priest. Every evening after dinner we would pray rosary with the villagers and follow by the goodnight talk of Fr. Joseph Thanh. We even had different activities each day; cleaning the drain of the schools and parish, experiencing how to make ‘Poi’ (native term for sago) with the natives, giving talks to the primary school students in St. Dominic Savio Primary School that was established by the Salesians, also to the three Don Bosco Learning Centres that are currently administered by Fr. Joseph Thanh. We also organized and played different games with the youths and little children, and even went for an outing in the river.
"The place is beautiful but remote, there is no road access, the sea is always fluctuating and makes complication for boat travel. The people are not educated because of isolation and lack of basic government services and they do not value the schools that are in their community. The faith of the people is not strong and they still hold on to their traditional beliefs. Almost no men in the community are involved in dchurch activities and few women and youth are active in Church activity. People find means and ways to get something out of the Primary School, the Learning Centres and even the Parish without contributing anything good to the institutions. There is no Parish Pastoral Council, because the parishioners have no clear understanding of the structure, meaning, service, laity role and function of the parish council. And mostly because jealousy among the people makes it difficult for the parish pastoral council to exist and function. I was asking, how can the priest survive in this kind of situation? It is a difficult situation for me as a young man aspiring to become a priest. Fr. Joseph Thanh was handling those situations and people with patience, so now he simply lives among those situations and he has made and is making a great difference. I come to learn from Fr. Joseph Thanh that he survives there not only because he loves his priesthood, but because he loves Christ and he radiates Christ to the people. He lives among the people to transform the people. He said that “it is difficult to change the parents but I still have hope and I can change the children.” What he did with children at the Learning Centres really makes sense and a brighter hope for the community. On looking at the situations (mentioned above) I already doubted my vocation because all these time (8 years in the seminary) my focus was on the love of the priesthood – the priest house, car, honour etc... and more on what the Church will do or give me. Having experienced the situation in this parish of Herehere, it really tests my patience. Honestly, I cannot survive in this kind of parish. Therefore, I do not need to rush to become a priest. I need to allow myself to be led by the Spirit of God. I need to fall in love with Christ first, so that I may have heart of patience to accept what is offered and to grow wherever I will be planted like what fr. Joseph Thanh is doing in Herehere.” These are the words of Seminarian JACOB TUMUN – Archdiocese of Mt. Hagen.
“The literacy rate in the parish is the lowest in the country since there is no motivation from the parents. There are many factors affecting the populace and food production is scarce. They depend mainly on the perennial sago palms which take ten years to grow, and betelnuts for commercial trade. They live a sort of semi-nomadic life in which most of the hard work is carried out by the womenfolk. The lukewarm faith that people still believe in is a cargo-cult mentality, deceased relatives are buried in the same house or not far from the family members. The Catholic faith is not deeply rooted in the lives of the people among whom hatred and violence diminish the gospel values and authentic fraternity. Lack of appreciation for social services like education, clinic… the government has neglected much of the basic service delivery for decades. What I learnt from the parish priest, Fr. Joseph Thanh, was “patience” or he would have left the place earlier but he is living among the most difficult people for the last five years.” These are the words of Seminarian MATTHEW TIMBALU – Archdiocese of Port Moresby.
“In the life of every priest I have encountered in my life, there was one outstanding priest I really admired with his little way of life. The life he lived was admirable and very attractive to me, especially as a diocesan candidate of the Archdiocese of Rabaul. Thus, he has taught me to live a holy, prayerful and simple life with the people in the parish. During my holiday with this priest I have learned many good things from him, thus the way I think a diocesan priest-to-be like me should live in the future. He has taught me by his simple way of life not to put myself first, but to put others first before myself and to devout myself for the good of others that they may enjoy their fullness of life in the presence of God himself.” These are the words of Seminarian MATTHEW GONA – Archdiocese of Rabaul.
As Fr. Joseph Thanh continued sharing, he mentioned something that really caught my attention, he said, “I am serving this people here not because they are catholic but I am Catholic.” For it is a matter of personal conviction which is sustained through prayer, visitation of the Blessed Sacrament, daily mass, constant devotion to Mary Help of Christians, great trust in the Divine providence that will help us, as seminarians, persevere in our vocation. It is life’s lesson for eight of us that reflects what is expected more or less to live in a parish or wherever we may be, we will always remember to serve without expecting any reward, to give without counting the cost, for the Kingdom of God. We will do it and must do it because WE ARE CATHOLIC.