15 December 2007

Father Pat's Old-time Syncretic Religion

From Throwim Way Leg: Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds—On the Track of Unknown Mammals in Wildest New Guinea, by Tim Flannery (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1998), pp. 186-187:
Father Pat is an Irishman for whom Gaelic is a first language. He is one of the new style of Roman Catholic missionaries and is a vital force in the lives of the people of the Torricelli Mountains. As we got to know each other, I began to see what motivated Pat. He told me that his own language and culture had been banned and belittled at the hands of the invading English and that he was certainly not going to see that happen to his Papua New Guinea parishioners. They had, unfortunately, been converted in the 1930s by Catholic missionaries of German extraction who had suppressed the local culture. Pat was determined to redress that.

Under Father Pat, the region had experienced a dramatic cultural revival. The Mass was now said in Olo (the local language) by this Irish priest dressed to a turn in Melanesian finery. His cuscus-fur head-dress and bird-of-paradise plume armlets shook gloriously as he sang. Indeed, hearing Mass said by Father Pat dressed in his full regalia was one of the most moving experiences I have ever had in a church.

It was with some pride that Pat told me that the revival of old traditions had gone so far that, as a special favour to the visiting Bishop of Vanimo, parish women had danced bare-breasted in procession through the church while singing hymns.

But the revival had gone much deeper than ceremonial formalities. Pat had questioned the old men closely concerning their pre-Christian customs and had incorporated traditional elements, where appropriate, into the celebration of the sacraments. Thus, traditional words from birth and initiation ceremonies, many long forgotten by the community, were now said at baptisms and confirmations. Pat also bought ochre for decorative purposes and sponsored festivals on these occasions.

For the first time in decades a haus tambaran (ancestral spirit house) had been built in Wilbeitei village and in it were stored the spirit masks, all newly made, for which the area was formerly famous. But the house now had a double purpose. Though great spirit masks, some five metres tall, were hung around its walls, at its centre was parked the new community truck, the result of an investment and savings scheme instituted by Father Pat.

Pat's revival of the village traditions had come at a critical moment. The Olo had been influenced by Christianity for the best part of sixty years. They were a lot further down the road to westernisation than even the Telefol. It was dismaying to find that Pidgin was commonly used, even in conversations between the Olo themselves, and that only the very oldest members of the community remembered what traditional clothing looked like. Had Father Pat arrived just a decade later, he may have found precious little to preserve.

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