PASTORAL LETTER OF THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS CONFERENCE OF PAPUA NEW GUINEA AND SOLOMON ISLANDS ON COMMUNION
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
This year, 2012, we your bishops wish to reflect on the theme of “communion.” The late Holy Father John Paul II advised us to take a “new evangelization" as our first priority, making communion "the theme and aim of all evangelization in Oceania and the basis for all pastoral planning" (Ecclesia in Oceania 18). As we prepare to evaluate the National Pastoral Plan of PNG in preparation for a second General Assembly of the Catholic Church, this time involving Solomon Islands, we wish to follow that advice. The upcoming Synod in Rome on New Evangelization should offer new ways of inviting people into communion, and of promoting communion as a means of proclaiming gospel values. Similarly the upcoming Year of Faith initiated by Pope Benedict XVI to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council should offer new and creative ways of being a community of faith.
The Vision and Mission of the National Pastoral Plan of Papua New Guinea reflect this commitment to communion. We said that all pastoral strategies must be evaluated in terms of their inclusiveness, the way they “make room” for people, especially those who are often excluded; how they build Christian community and enable members of the community to participate fully, to grow ever more deeply into communion with others, and to “bear one another’s burdens” (Gal 6:2). Pastoral strategies must create conditions of equality and true partnership, of mutuality, and of reciprocity in relationships. This commitment to communion is the reason why our priority areas were selected: family, children, youth, adults, the poor, and the sick. We wanted to include these groups more effectively in the life of the church and to promote their greater participation in that life.
The spirituality of communion
Pope John Paul II described communion as a spirituality and way of being that follows from genuine reconciliation with God through Christ, and hence with all humanity. Pope Benedict XVI has summarized his predecessor’s teaching about communion, describing the conditions for a spirituality of communion as “the ability to perceive the light of the mystery of the Trinity shining on the faces of brothers and sisters around us, to be attentive to ‘our brothers and sisters in faith within the profound unity of the Mystical Body, and therefore as ‘those who are a part of me’, in order to share their joys and sufferings, to sense their desires and attend to their needs, to offer them deep and genuine friendship’; the ability as well to recognize all that is positive in the other, so as to welcome it and prize it as a gift God gives me through that person ... and finally the ability ‘to ‘make room’ for our brothers and sisters, bearing ‘each other’s burdens (Gal 6:2).” (Africae Munus 35; Novo Millennio Ineunte 29, 43).
The theme of communion is a major one in the Scriptures, especially in the New Testament, where Jesus describes the relationship between himself and his disciples as like a vine and its branches. As well as reminding the Christians of Galatia to “help to carry one another’s burdens and in this way you will obey the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2), St Paul also describes the relationships within the church as like a human body (Rom. 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:12-27; Eph. 4:4). The Book of Acts describes how the early church lived a life of sharing in communion (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37).
The young church reflected more deeply on the foundations of their shared life of communion and found that it was rooted in the life of love and service within the Trinity. It was expressed most profoundly in the incarnation, when God entered into communion with all humanity. It was manifest on the cross, where Christ actually did bear the burdens of all humanity. It is enacted in the Eucharist where the body and blood of Christ makes people of different cultures and languages truly one, truly “blood relatives” (Africae Munus 152).
This experience of communion is not foreign to our cultures. In Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands we are very conscious of our traditional obligations and bonds of mutual service. The word “solidarity”, much used in church circles when reflecting on communion these days, well describes this time-honoured way of thinking. There is a good side to the much criticized wantok system: the strong sense of community, of relationships, and of the generous exchange of gifts.
Linked to the concept of solidarity is the “principle of subsidiarity” which holds that nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done just as well by a smaller and simpler organization. This principle is played out every day in a very simple way in ordinary village life in PNG and Solomon Islands, where all members of an extended family or clan, according to cultural tradition, age, sex, capabilities and status in life are taught and faithfully perform their roles and responsibilities for the common good of all to bring about a safe, peaceful and prosperous society. Solidarity refers to the virtue enabling the human family to share fully the treasure of material and spiritual goods, and subsidiarity is the coordination of society’s activities in a way that supports the internal life of the local communities (Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI to the Participants in the 14th Session of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences).
The biblical understanding of communion is inculturated into our societies today through our emphasis on small or basic Christian communities as a culturally sanctioned way of living and witnessing to the gospel.
A life of communion in the Body of Christ begins with my own personal faith and action. A personal spirituality of communion is the basis of a commitment to building communion. It is built on my own communion with Christ, in the mystical body, in the communion of saints.
Our current situation
A reflection on communion is very timely. We face serious political economic and social problems in our two countries that remind us of the importance of a concern for the common good, i.e., the integral human development of each person and of all persons in the society. The current political divisions and divisive election practices, with a high level of hypocrisy in the split between rhetoric and actual practice, make a renewed commitment to communion essential. In PNG we are faced with an erosion of the separation of powers, the basis of a just democratic social order. We see the state of the economy, the negative effects on the environment of mining, overfishing, logging. We see land disputes leading to violence. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer. There is no change in the situation in the rural areas. We see families divided over religion and money, sometimes with violence. We see a resurgence of regionalism. Many of these problems and challenges are present in the church also. We need to be and act together in order to meet the enormous challenges of the various social issues affecting the people and the church today. To bring about lasting change all of us must work together and support one another. We need the strength of the communion. This is the spirit of solidarity which is somehow the charitable aspect of communion. We need to convert ourselves to the common good.
Communion in the church
Now we call for better relations of inclusiveness, for greater participation, within the church. Communion requires all of us to use our gifts and to release the gifts of others: “to each is given the manifestation of the spirit for the common good.” (1 Cor. 12:7). This manifestation is for mission, not for comfort. We restate the importance of dialogue, participation, and co-responsibility in church affairs. We call for shared leadership and governance, with clarification of the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved. All leaders need to conform their style of leading to that of Christ. We need better recognition and participation of women, better recognition and participation of youth.
We need better relationships between clergy and laity, between priests and religious, especially women religious. The relationship between clergy and laity are reciprocal in church and society. Priests should not be exercising or aspiring to economic or political power. Lay people must bring gospel values to the workplace, not just to liturgical offices. They are “ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20) in the public sphere (Christifideles Laici 413-416, 418-421).
It is our task as bishops to promote lay leaders for political and economic life, intellectuals with a solid grounding in the social teaching of the church. For this we need better communication within the church and better communication of the gospel to the world. We need improved structures and means of communication in the church. It is in the small or basic Christian communities that people at the basis level of the church become real communities of faith in communion with one another and with other communities. The reality and experience of communion in the church is imbued with the spirituality of communion. Just like the body needs clothes the spirituality of communion needs methods and structures in order that the church may witness to communion and be an instrument to the building of communion. These are methods and structures that favour dialogue, participation and co-responsibility.
Communion in partnerships
We believe that communion involves our partnerships with other people and organizations that share similar goals. We want to work in partnership with other churches, with civil society, faith based organizations, non government organizations, and community based organizations with which we share a concern for building up the common good, but without minimizing the distinctive characteristics of our own approach to justice and to charitable works.
Another important partner is of course the state. The task of the state is to implement and administer a just order, and thus be an instrument of reconciliation, justice and peace (AM 81). This just order is at the service of “vocation to the communion of persons (Catechism 2419). This is why the church cooperates with the state in building up society.
We work together with the state in the area of health. The Church’s concern for health follows the example of Christ who gave his disciples the authority to heal every disease and every infirmity (Mt 10:1). Church healthcare institutions continue this concern. We work together with the state also in education. Catholic schools teach children how to live in peace and harmony according to traditional values taken up by the gospel. Finally we work with the state in social and political concerns. Decision makers must take responsibility for their own and other people’s integral development.
Communion as making room for people
A spirituality of communion requires a welcoming attitude. It is about finding ways of including people rather than excluding them, in a way that Pope John Paul II called “making room” for them. There is room in the Catholic Church for people estranged by hurt or insult, victims of sexual abuse. The church apologizes for any wrongdoing and welcomes these people home. There is room for those who for various reasons left and joined other churches and returned. The church forgives and welcomes them home. There is room for street kids. The church cares about their welfare and supports programs to enable them to fulfill their potential. There is room for rascals, criminals, prisoners, and drug and alcohol addicts. The church calls them to conversion and assists in their rehabilitation. There is room for people living with HIV and AIDS (PLWHA). While maintaining her teaching of the truth in moral matters, the church rejects attitudes that exclude PLWHA from the life of the church.
There is room for people with disability. We know that we have to do better in providing educational opportunities suited to the needs of the disabled, with appropriate liturgies and catechesis. We want to empower people with disability to participate and contribute to church and society, starting with disability-friendly churches.
A challenging area for all of us at this at this time is how to respond to homosexuals and transsexuals. This is a growing challenge that calls for guidance from church leadership. How can we make room also for those forced into prostitution (sex workers)? Here also, the church preaches the truth which makes us free. While unable to condone any practice that endorses or promotes sexual activity outside of marriage between a man and a woman, the church brings the Lord’s compassion to those facing these temptations and offers alternatives that are more fulfilling and life enhancing.
There is room for broken families, for cohabiting, divorced and remarried couples. We are aware that many Catholics find themselves in irregular unions and are therefore excluded from receiving Holy Communion. They long for “communion” in both senses of the word but feel trapped in their situation. Sometimes they feel that they have done the right thing or the best that they could do in the situation, and the church is being unnecessarily harsh towards them. We understand their deep suffering and we assure them of the closeness of the church, by inviting them to take part in many church activities.
At the same time we cannot ignore the duty of the church to protect the sanctity of marriage by reminding those who do not want or cannot receive the sacrament of marriage that they cannot receive the Holy Eucharist because their situation “objectively contravenes God’s law” (CCC1650).
We have to work together to find a solution that responds to this longing for communion while protecting the sanctity and permanence of the marriage bond and the integrity of the sacrament of the Eucharist. We bishops renew our commitment to ensuring that the avenues available within the church are fully explored and made available to those in need.
We invite all Catholics and all people of good will:
- to take part in the activities for this Year of Communion.
- To take part in the evaluation of the National Pastoral Plan.
- To look for ways to become less dependent, more self reliant, and more cooperative in enriching the lives of our communities
- To discuss the issues raised in the discussion booklet on communion.
- To celebrate together in a special way the Feast of Communion, the Solemnity of the Blessed Trinity.
- To join us in preparing for the Second General Assembly of the Catholic Church of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.
We invoke the intercession of Mary, Mother of the Church, who will guide us and protect us as we grow in communion with her Son and with our brothers and sisters who call Mary their Mother.
+Archbishop John Ribat MSC
President of the Catholic Bishops Conference PNG/SI 24 April 2012