Fr. Etienne Steve Palinkas, SVD
(an interview in Australia by unknown author)
Any hope for the youth today? was my last question put to Steve in the delightful interview that I had with our missionary from Zaire. We know Steve from his four and one half year stay in our province here from '79 to '83. I finally got the fuller story of why he was with us at that lime. I knew that it had to do with being a 'man without a country'. To my question about hope for the youth today he had this to say: "Why not? They're not the same as we were, but, why not?" I like that.
I suggested a special name or 'term' I thought he would be well recognized by, such as, 'A laughing ball of energy!' "Would you be happy with that description?" "Yes" he said, "but when I had all that malaria, I was very tired." He got the constant recurring variety of three-day tropical malaria which he just could not shake off. Since 1972 he was more and more overcome with this disease. When he told me whence the joy comes that prompts him to be so jolly and laughing, I was humbled and really rejoiced with Steve. He quotes St. Paul in Latin: "Dominus enim prope est!" - 'for the Lord is near!' More about that later.
Steve was born 55 years ago in a village in Southern Czechoslovakia by the then name of Udvard. Czechoslovakian when he was born, but Hungarian during world war 2nd. and then reverting after the war. He was the third boy, the sixth child of the family of 9 boys and 4 girls. His father was a farmer and not rich, though the conditions were not too bad in their country in those days as he was growing up. His father died in '58 and his mother in '75.
The primary school of his parish was taught by lay teachers. There is where his formal education began. It was his father who told him about the work of the missionaries partly due to the SVD publication 'Vilagposta' printed monthly, probably at St. Grabriel's, and received in the Palinkas home. An SVD Brother appeared in their village once and left a copy of the youth publication, KIS HITTERFESZTO for his brother. Little Steve got a hold of that and read it. He says: "I told them, 'This is for me. I would like to go and work in the missions as an SVD missionary!."
At the age of 11 little Etienne Palinkas said his goodbye and entered an SVD House in a suburb of Budapest. There were about 30 students all together. The next year was spent in SVD House in Koszeg. From '44 - '47 he was at Kiskunfelegyhaza. Then he returned to Koszeg for a military-like disciplined novitiate training. He said: "I was very happy. We had a very strong and severe novice master. The young men needed that. I liked it." Out of his class of about 15, three were finally ordained.
Though the communist had taken over after the 2nd. world war, it was in 1950 when their 'take-over' was consolidated with the confiscating of the SVD Houses taking place also at that time. His final study was done in a diocesan seminary at Esztergom. After ordinaition he had two years as assistant in a parish (Labatlan); seven years as assistant in a Budapest parish when a break came. The mission procurator in Switzerland invited Steve over there for a holiday. He got two weeks leave to go, but he never returned. He askcd for an appointment to the missions instead, from our superiors in Rome. This was granted and he took off for Zaire, obtaining a Vatican passport from the Papal Nuncio, since he could not travel with the passport he had. This was in 1965.
What was his mission life like? "I was always in the bush. I was 13 years alone. I was not in a community. I liked it. It was not always easy. Every month I visited my neighbors and stayed several days. I worked in Masamuna, Kimafu, Kalenge (where I built a station), and on my return from Australia, Tumikia and Fumuputu-Masi - Manimba. I know French better than English. I used it every day. I know German and learned the Kikongo language."
And what about the trip to Australia in 1979? "Well, the Papal Nuncio told me that I had to change my passport. I got a travel document from the UNO to go to Australia to become an 'Aussie'. I needed a homeland. I was here for four and one half years. Before going back to Zaire in 1984 I had the opportunity to visit the highlands of PNG. I returned to Zaire all right, but soon found myself back in Germany for malaria put me in hospital and there I was advised to change climates and find a place where it was not so hot. It was then I asked for a transfer to the Highlands of PNG. I was given the diocese of Mt. Hagen to work in. I will be here until Aug. 29th."
It was while in Zaire, alone and he was finding life hard at times that the Lord got through to Steve, 'I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness. Let your tolerance be evident to everyone: the Lord is very near. There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4, 4 – 7). After quoting some of the above, he turned to the Latin again: "Dominus enim prope est." And with a twinkle in his eye he said, as he pulled his Rosary from his pocket with glee: "Maria enim prope est!" - for Mary is near! - "too!"
There is no doubt that, wherever Steve goes, he will never forget his 'beloved Zaire'. "It's the greatest Catholic country in Africa!" he said. "Why?" I asked. "It has the largest proportion of Catholics. Of the 30 million people, c.12 million are Catholic, i.e. 40%. There is lot of vocations to the priesthood and the religious life. You remember the Holy Father visited there about '82." he said.
All of us, for sure, have heard about the use of the local cultural practices in the liturgy in Africa. I asked about Zaire.
"Zaire has its own ritual. The people do a lot of dancing in the celebration of the Eucharist. Not all missionaries like it because it seems too much like a celebration for the theatre. They use the drums and now the guitar also. And we have some problems in the Church in our country. The first one is the incidence of polygamy. But there is also another in regard to marriages. The bride price is very high and it is hard for the groom and his people to pay the price. What happens is that some money is advanced and the couple start living together. They marry only after some years when the full price is paid.
In Zaire, in the last place that r was, there were not many people coming to the sacrament of Reconciliation. They all like to go to receive the Eucharist, though. We tried to prepare the people for the celebration of Christmas and for Easter by the sacrament of Reconciliation. Other feasts that they celebrate are: 15th. August, 1st. Nov. & 1st. Jan. The latter is the great occasion for celebrating with dancing and drinking and feasting. Their great joy is to dance in the moonlight of the villages."
He talked to me about the government. It is now 100% African. About ten years ago it was against the whites and Catholics. These two groups were blamed for any problems in the country. The government took over the schools and the hospitals and even the shops from the whites. In no time the standard of all these became very very low. The shops became bare of supplies. Realizing the folly of their acts the government asked the people to take over again. Since that time there is a greater friendliness. The above incident is interesting in so far as the educated in the government are the product of the Catholic Schools. And the Catholic schools get some support from the government.
About 20% of the people are Protestants whose missionaries arrived in Zaire before the Catholics. There is also a kind of national religion, somewhat primitive. It was founded by a Simon Kimbangu who led a group to fight for the independence of Zaire. He was imprisoned and later died there.