Catholics in Papua New Guinea honored the evangelization, 80 years ago, of the remote interior of the nation's main island by making a pilgrimage in the steps of its first missionaries.
“After 80 years, the Catholic faithful in the Archdiocese of Mount Hagen felt it is time to say thank you and to acknowledge all the blessings from God through the missionaries,” said Paul Petrus, a social researcher and a layman of Papua New Guinea, in an April 21 interview with CNA.
Some 500 Catholics, including three priests and nine seminarians, trekked through the mountainous highlands of New Guinea from March 28 until April 13, Palm Sunday.
They began in the vicinity of Madang, on the coast, and arrived at the Mount Hagen chancery, where they were greeted by Archbishop Douglas Young, who told them, “the pilgrimage was sign of a family walking together and sharing the Gospel, as a Church alive in Christ.”
The Wahgi Valley, in which Mount Hagen is located, was unknown to Westerners until aerial reconnaissance discovered it in 1933.
The following year, Divine Word Missionaries traveled to the Highlands to evangelize its native inhabitants. They were commissioned by the vicar apostolic of Eastern New Guinea, who was himself a member of the Society of the Divine Word.
Divine Word Missionaries from America and Germany – Fr. Wilhelm Ross, Fr. Wilhelm Tropper, Br. Eugene Frank, Fr. Alphonse Schafer, and Fr. Henry Auefnanger – set out from Wilya together with 72 indigenous helpers to evangelize New Guinea's Highlands, eventually branching out and founding different missions.
“The first missionaries’ sole purpose was to evangelize the people, but services such as education and health seemed necessary in order to evangelize meaningfully,” Petrus reflected.
“Thus, schools and health services were established, and since then it has contributed much to the development of the region; and today about 40 percent of the health and education services in the Highlands is provided by the Catholic Church.”
Petrus recounting the walking pilgrimage, saying the first week was a “test of faith, and of physical strength.”
He described the pilgrims' suffering in walking through the tropical rainforest and steep terrain of the New Guinea Highlands, crossing valleys to highways, some of them without proper footwear.
Despite aching bodies and blistered feet, the pilgrims found “spiritual strength which motivated them to continue,” Petrus said.
“Some of the pilgrims are descendents of the helpers who assisted the first missionaries.”
They followed a stretch of the Chimbu river for a time, crossing the ridges of the Bismarck range – the highest peak of which, Mount Wilhelm, rises to more than 14,700 feet.
The pilgrims visited the memorials of Br. Eugene Frank at Anganere and Fr. Carl Morschheuser at Womatne. Both were martyred by indigenous Papuans, in 1934 and 1935.
The second week of the pilgrimage, from Mingende to Mount Hagen, a distance of more than 50 miles, continued on the old highway, a route that Fr. Ross and Br. Eugene had used.
Petrus described the arrival at Mount Hagen as filled with “tears of joy” for many of the pilgrims.
“It was a perfect spiritual exercise to strengthen their Catholic faith during the Lenten season,” he said of his fellow pilgrims, “and it was a good experience to feel a pain and suffering similar to that of the first missionaries who 80 years ago entered the Highlands region.”