The Fallout From Vatican II in PNG by David Wetherell Fellow | Deakin University | Geelong

My stint as a teacher in various PNG government schools ranged over the Central, Western and Northern (Oro) districts, a seven-year experience that coincided with the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) and its aftermath.

Pope John XXIII, who called the Council, wanted to heal divisions within Christianity. He also wanted to renew Catholic spirituality and alter the Roman Church’s reactionary attitude to the world. As the Council opened Pope John XXIII declared that a change of terminology would occur towards non-Catholics. At the time of this announcement I was a PNG cadet education officer in my second year at a university in country NSW. My history lecturer, Mr James Dolan, a devout Catholic, entered the classroom and said in his broad Scottish accent, “I see from this morning’s paper, Mr Wetherell, that henceforth we are to describe you as ‘separated brethren’ ”. With a wink in my direction he added, “it was much more satisfying to call you Protestants ‘bloody heretics’ “.

Four years later I was on the way to my first full-time teaching appointment. As elsewhere in the world, the response among Catholics in PNG to the decisions of Vatican II, especially among the clergy, was mixed—varying all the way from ‘affirming’ through ‘accommodating’ to ‘resisting’. But Vatican II appeared, to an outsider at least, to cause scarcely a ripple among most of the Territory’s hard-working clergy.

The best-known advocate of the ‘affirming’ school of thought in Port Moresby was Fr Patrick Murphy who was often seen on his motorbike at de Boismenu Seminary and the University. For others who resisted around the world it had the effect of an axe splitting a piece of wood. The school of resistance included the ultra-traditional or Latin Mass ultramontane [meaning: advocating supreme papal authority] Catholics headed by French Archbishop Lefebre, who was later excommunicated.

My first government high school posting in Papua was on Daru in the far west. Here the Bishop was uncompromising and ultramontane. As nearly everyone knows, in 1890 the coastal areas of Papua were divided geographically into church ‘spheres of influence’. Daru, a small but quite densely populated island, was within the allotted sphere of the London Missionary Society (LMS, later Papua Ekalesia, and eventually, United Church). The Daru High School students and expatriate staff, notably the three teachers who were Welsh, were associated with the James Chalmers Memorial Church (LMS). This church wasn’t my ‘cup of tea’. (‘Chalmers Memorial’ because the Daru-based James Chalmers of the LMS had been killed in 1901. His remains were believed to lie in a grave not far from the High School.) Roman Catholics were relative newcomers. The Anglicans were unrepresented and unknown: their church had been allotted the distant north Papuan coast about 700 kilometres away.

What to do with a Protestant like me—who wanted to belong somewhere on Daru but couldn’t—was a particular problem for the Most Reverend Gerard Deschamps, head of the Montfort Catholic Mission as Bishop of Daru. I had friends on the mission; near my house was the Montfort Catholic convent staffed by half a dozen French Canadian teaching nuns. I applied on compassionate grounds to be considered a Catholic, a concession which was at first denied. However, after delaying for a few months, Bishop Deschamps altered his position and allowed me to join the faithful at Mass.

Teaching alongside the nuns in the Montfort Mission was an Australian layman, the late Mr (later Fr) Timothy N. Brien. A witty controversialist and bon viveur, Tim Brien was strongly on the ‘affirming’ side of Vatican II like Fr Murphy. This brought him into collision with his Bishop. As the number of mixed marriages increased on Daru, what determined Deschamps’ policy was the pre-World War I Ne Temere decree. That is, if a marriage were solemnised in a Catholic church, the non-Catholic partner had to promise to bring up the children as Roman Catholics. It was a hard policy, for if the mixed parents of the children had married in a Protestant chapel, the children were held not to be legitimate in the eyes of the Church. Each held his ground, and an indignant letter from Tim Brien was freely circulated on the island. The Bishop duly issued a document known as convalidatio declaring such children to be legitimate after all, which in its turn led to the kind of fiery communication that only an age of controversy could produce.

Following the welcome hospitality given to me at the altar in 1966 the pendulum swung in the opposite direction; it was a case of ‘No-Yes-No’. This followed a complaint from a leading conservative lay Catholic in the education department on Daru who took exception to such a wanton departure from tradition. To admit a Protestant to the altar was, in his opinion, an example not to have been thought possible even in those lax post-Vatican II days. So I remained out of communion until my second posting in 1968 to the High School at Popondetta. As far as I was concerned personally Gerard Deschamps was hospitality itself. I was invited to consider the Bishop’s House my home while he was on his patrols. His diocese stretched as far inland as Kiunga in the upper Fly River so he was often away. On some weekends I walked from my tiny government-built Single Officer’s Quarters (SOQ) to the Catholic compound. The spacious domestic quarters of the mission head could not have belonged to anyone but a bishop, stocked as it was with mitres and other paraphernalia belonging to the episcopal office.

In spite of his intransigence in church matters, Bishop Deschamps wrote cordial letters to me after my departure. One described in detail the splendid pomp and ceremony at the consecration of his new cathedral. Thus the odium theologicum between us was politely buried.

I sometimes wonder whether, devoid of such intellectual stimulation, aesthetic richness and, yes, occasional controversy, life in the secular world outside the churches in Daru (or in Australia for that matter), is arid—lacking pepper and salt. It seems to have little sense of ‘the beyond’. In spite of all the surfing, long-distance running, tennis and football, something is missing.

* * *

A final anecdote is worth relating. It involved either Deschamps or the French aristocrat Alain de Boismenu, Bishop of Yule Island—I forget which, but it didn’t flow directly from Vatican II. One twilight night the Bishop, whichever it was, was hearing confessions. Not realising in the darkening church that the woman on the other side of the screen was in fact a teaching nun rather than one of the mothers on the mission, he asked how many sins she wanted to confess. Said she, ‘Only one. I confess, Father, that I lost my temper with the children’. Parrying for a moment, he responded, ‘How many children do you have? ‘Thirty-two’, she replied. ‘Oh, go away, my good woman’, he said, ‘and come back when you are sober’. *

*Francis West’s Selected Letters of Hubert Murray (1970) doesn’t include the incident and the writer is unable to supply a source.

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