Pedals and nets
A Divine Word Missionary's first year as a priest in Papua New Guinea
By Father Michal Tomaszewski SVD
The first year of my priesthood and my return to Papua New Guinea is over. I was here before as a seminarian from 2007 to 2009. In 2011, I spent the first six months of my priestly missionary service in the Highlands of this beautiful, young and developing country. Currently, I am based in a village called Kunjingini in the lowlands of the Diocese of Wewak, which lies on the northern coast of the island.
An Indonesian confrere, Father Lukas Tiala SVD is a parish priest here. He was ordained six years ago and has served in Papua New Guinea for five years. He is responsible for all of the administrative work of the parish. I am helping as much as I can, focusing mostly on pastoral duties.
Our mission covers quite a big area with a relatively dense population of which there are approximately 8,000 Catholics. They are organized into communities, or outstations, which we visit regularly. Each week one of us, accompanied by altar servers, goes to one of the communities, meets with the people, and presides over the Eucharist or other sacraments.
Soon after coming here, I realized that those short pastoral visits are not sufficient in order to get to know people and their lives well. Therefore, one of the first things that I bought to help me was a bicycle—not a good one but the best one that I could find.
Already during my first trip, both pedals broke down and I had to replace them. Each time I go somewhere there is something (usually minor) that needs to be fixed, so I take tools wherever I go.
Lately I have noticed that the whole structure of the bike is slowly starting to break apart. Needless to say, I am still using it and am happy to have it. Overall up to now, it has served me well.
More and more, I appreciate what a great tool a bicycle is in reaching out to the people in this part of the world. In addition to my ordinary pastoral duties, if there is free time, I take my bicycle and pedal—I discover all kind of places.
While walking, one cannot go far in a short time. By car or motorbike, one cannot reach all the places; it is costly; and most of the time one speeds by, missing many things. By using a bicycle, one can easily stop at any place, walk a bit if necessary, have a chat with people, and lift up the bicycle to cross a river or go over other natural blockades on the road, such as fallen trees.
Crossing rivers is one of our main headaches here because there are only a few bridges in our area and many rivers and creeks to be crossed. Please, try to imagine what it means to have the flexibility of a bicycle after heavy rains when the water level is high and there is no other way around.
I have to admit that since my early childhood, biking has been my hobby and an important tool on my way to the priesthood. By means of the bicycle, my spirituality was enriched.
Pedaling here and there, I gradually started noticing God in the people who passed by and in all of creation. This helped me, too, in the process of learning how to pray from my heart and in getting the courage to say "yes" to God and God’s will for me.
I never thought then that sometime in the future, as a priest in faraway Papua New Guinea, I would use a bicycle not only for fun but also as a biblical fisherman’s net, inviting people to communion with God and each other.
Thanks to the bicycle, I have visited almost all of the communities in and near Kunjingini. I have learned more about the life situation of our parishioners, their living conditions and their joys and sorrows. Already during my first trip, I met people who, because of various reasons, left the Church years ago or are coming to the church very seldom.
Some of them did not even realize that there is a new priest working in their area. It is hard to describe their surprise when they encountered a white man on a bicycle next to their hut, and even more when they learned that the white man is a priest.
Whether they knew me or not, I stopped at their homes—to find shelter during rainfalls, fix something on my bicycle, or simply for a bit of rest. Every time, I was struck by their great hospitality.
It is hard to count how many liters of coconut milk I have drunk on my journeys and how many other things the people have given to me. I believe that those spontaneous meetings and chats initiated something.
Some encounters marked a first step in getting to know each other. Others strengthened already established relationships. I hope that some meetings generated at least a thought about conversion and coming back to the community.
Now after several months in Kunjingini, with joy I can multiply these kinds of examples of reaching out to people. I thank God and pray for all of them. I pray with concern about the fate of those who are outside of the "fisherman’s net." I pray that one day I will see their faces in church in communion with God and our parish community.