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The Pope: Mi Laikim Jon Pol

4 minute read
John Kohan

Tom-toms and conch shells welcome a missionary

A determined band of 25 warriors from the Enga province of Papua New Guinea laid down their bows and arrows a month ago and set out along narrow jungle trails, carrying an 18-ft.-high wooden cross. Whenever they came to a river they could not ford, they stopped and built a bridge. Other Papua New Guineans braved mountain passes 11,000 ft. above sea level to make their long journey. Why had so many thousands trekked so far to stand in ankle-deep mud on a rain-soaked field in the town of Mount Hagen? One tribesman, in a three-cornered hat made from human hair, had a compellingly simple answer: “He brings the Good Spirit.”

The “he” was Pope John Paul II, who last week was welcomed to Papua New Guinea by tribes from across the country’s rugged highlands and by tom-tom drums pounding out the joyful news of his arrival. Few of John Paul’s foreign journeys have offered such a kaleidoscope of contrasts as the ten-day, 24,000-mile trek across the outer rim of Asia and the South Pacific that he completed at week’s end. In South Korea, he assumed the role of pastor; in Thailand, he served as a diplomat; to the islands of the Pacific, he came primarily as a missionary.

By traveling to the frontiers of the Christian faith, John Paul wanted to dramatize his conviction that the future of Roman Catholicism lies in the developing world. About one-third of Papua New Guinea’s3.4 million people are Catholics, but cherch leaders have had to struggle to adapt their faith to a culture in which cannibalism is still a living memory. A tongue-in-cheek column in a local news paper assured the Pope: “Don’t be scared, sir. We won’t eat you.”

After the tight security that surrounded John Paul’s visit to South Korea, the Pope seemed to revel in the enthusiastic reception that greeted him in Port Mores by, the capital of Papua New Guinea. The Pontiff won many hearts when, at a Mass, he said the Lord’s Prayer in pidgin English, the most common local patois. “Papa bilong mipela, yu stap long heven . . .” At the local sports field he watched benignly as bare-breasted women in grass skirts chanted hymns and drummers sporting feathered headdresses pounded out an accompaniment on hollow logs covered with animal skins. When the Pope gave his blessings to the crowd, the shouts of “Mi laikim Jon Pol!” were deafening.

Warring tribesmen had called a tem porary truce in honor of the Pontiff’s visit. At Mount Hagen, from an altar covered with a thatched roof and lavishly decorated with hibiscus, orchids, bougainvillea and battle shields, the Pope made a plea for permanent peace to the crowd of almost 130,000. Then he gave Communion to warriors who glistened with pig fat and wore head dresses of black hawk feathers and crimson and golden plumes from the bird of paradise.

A day later, John Paul was welcomed to the steamy heat of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands with a fanfare played on conch shells and by an honor guard of spear-carrying tribes men. About one-sixth of the archipelago’s scattered population of 300,000 is Catholic. Gathered before a plain wooden altar, the Solomon Islanders gave no thunderous cheers but greeted John Paul by falling silent, a traditional sign of respect.

The Pontiff traveled next to Thailand, where he was welcomed by King Bhumibol Adulyadej in Bangkok’s Grand Palace. Catholics make up less than 1% of Thailand’s 52 million people. In an unusual ecumenical gesture, John Paul paid a 17-minute call on the Buddhist Supreme Patriarch.

To emphasize his concern for the plight of Indochinese refugees, John Paul also traveled 56 miles southeast from Bangkok to the Phanat Nikhom camp, where about 18,000 Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians await resettlement. As heavily armed Thai soldiers kept watch, the Pope repeatedly blessed the refugees. “I want you to know of my love,” said the Pope. It is a message that he is a clearly taking to the ends of the earth.

—By John Kohan. Reported by Reported by Roberto Suro with the Pope

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