Observing the Year of Consecrated Life convoked by Pope Francis, the members of the Society of the Divine Word serving in Papua New Guinea are gathered to study the Pope's 2013 apostolic exhortation on the proclamation of the Gospel in today's world.

More than 60 Divine Word Missionaries from across the Melanesian nation are in Alexishafen, 10 miles north of Madang, Jan. 5-10, to share their experiences of missionary life and to study Evangelii Gaudium as a beacon for evangelization on the Pacific islands.

According to Fr. Victor Roche, SVD, general secretary of the Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands bishops conference, "this the only second assembly in the 119 year-history of the SVD."

"The first assembly was held in January 2003," Fr. Roche told CNA Jan 8.

Addressing the participants, Fr. Joe Maciolek, superior for the Papua New Guinea province of the Society of the Divine Word said, "the purpose of the assembly is to share and experience the 'Joy of the Gospel' as Divine Word Missionaries in Papua New Guinea."

Fr. Maciolek in particular noted that "it is a good opportunity to share what the Pope says in his apostolic exhortation 'The Joy of the Gospel'... as the assembly coincides with the 'Year of the Consecrated Life' declared by Pope Francis."

Explaining the objectives of the assembly, Fr. Giovanni Bustos, team leader of the organizing committee, told the participants, "The four day assembly focuses on the sharing of experiences, and of being together as SVD missionaries in Papua New Guinea."

He further added, "this is not a body to make decisions nor evaluations or planning."

Fr. Bustos explained that the assembly activities includes scripture reading, presentations on Evangelii Gaudium, group discussions, personal sharing about the joys and challenges of being a missionary, and thanksgiving celebrations as "missionaries with grateful hearts."

The first Divine Word Missionaries in Papua New Guinea arrived at Alexishafen on Aug. 13, 1896, and from there moved to Tumleo Island, near Aitape, to begin their mission work.

Fr. Roche noted that "this is one of the reasons to have this assembly in Alexishafen, where it all began."

The Society of the Divine Word was instrumental in the evangelization of Papua New Guinea in the early 19th century, with members from Germany and the US, including Fr. Wilhelm Ross, Fr. Wilhelm Tropper, Br. Eugene Frank, Fr. Alphonse Schafer, and Fr. Henry Auefnanger, setting out from Wilya together with 72 indigenous helpers to evangelize New Guinea's Highlands, eventually branching out and founding different missions.

Many of the pioneer missionaries were martyred, and then during World War II, missionaries faced persecution from Japanese occupiers. American missionaries were exiled to Australia, and German missionaries faced restrictions.

More than 100 Divine Word Missionaries who were taken prisoner were martyred on the ships Akikaze and Yorishime Maru; at least 60 Catholics were martyred on the Akikaze on March 18, 1943.

Fr. Roche said that today, there are 102 Divine Word Missionaries from 21 countries serving in eight of the dioceses of Papua New Guinea. The order was founded in the Netherlands by St. Arnold Janssen in 1875, and now has more than 6,000 members.