INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE TO INTELLECTUAL FORMATION SOLOMON ISLANDS PERSPECTIVE
Ivica Gregurec, CM
“There is a picture in one of the churches in Melanesia. Missionaries are arriving to the shores of this island to preach the Gospel, with cross highly raised in the air.,. The people are waiting for them, looking at ships and other mighty things of the foreigners. And there is Christ, standing, not with the missionaries, but with the people at the shore.”
As a Vocation Director of young Solomon Islanders who are discerning their vocation and being primarily a person with a main background in pastoral work, I have to apologise myself for not being able to elaborate very deeply into this theme, but I will rather stay an observer of a factual realities present in Solomon Islands.
Solomon Islands are young south Pacific nation, which celebrated its 30th anniversary of independence on 7th July 2008. Almost all of close to 600,000 inhabitants of this 993 islands archipelago are Austronesians, being mostly Melanesians, with pockets of Polynesians, and recently arrived Micronesians and Chinese people.
Although first Catholic missionaries arrived to the islands in 1845, really constant Christian presence starts with Anglican mission in 60-ies of 19th century and, later, with second arrival of Catholics in 1895. Today most of population claims to be identified with “LOTU”, Pacific term for Church or Christian belief in general. Christianity, as such, is a strong binding factor for this nation, in which there are still around 70 spoken languages and different cultures, with hundreds of tribes.
Traditional animist religion of Solomon Islanders is similar to beliefs of other Melanesians. I will base my explanations mainly on beliefs of two main islands Guadalcanal and Malaita. Very strong connection with spirits of the ancestors, as well as different spiritual beings of nature, strong connection with their totemic animals (“devols”, as they are called in Solomon Pijin), different rites for protection, healing fertility and good being – are still something present in life of Solomon Islanders.
Encountering some of the traditional beliefs (kastom) of the Guadalcanalese was an eye opener for me. Positive values of these ancient systems, which are very often today abandoned, without acceptance of the positive values of Christianity, were something that gave soul to the community life and relationships among people. Peaceful coexistence, role of women, natural kindness – all of these were shared among those of same kin, “wantoks” in Solomon Pijin. With arrival of Christianity traditional values were shaken and, probably unintentionally, many good things, seeds of presence of God in these ancient cultures, were changed. There were positive changes too. Traditional tribal fights ceased and people started to show positive attitude to neighbouring ethnic groups. But, arrival of the modern life has shaken those values. Broken families, extramarital children, abuse of the traditional wantok system are just few examples of corruption of those traditional values. I do believe that all these areas are giving us a great opportunity for inter-religious dialogue, especially with those who are still practising their traditional beliefs, as well with those who feel strong connections with both, lotu and kastom.
Let me illustrate this thesis of mine with just two classic examples, encountered almost every day in Melanesia.
- Wantok system
Traditional value of this system was in protection of those of your own kin. Everyone is obliged to assist member of his/her own tribe, it is an ultimate sign of solidarity. It is unheard that someone would not be willing to assist to the Wantok. Modern abuses are those of material nature. We would say there is no common sense and it is not a rare situation that in capital, Honiara, a couple with few children, has to take care for dozen or more relatives from the province, because they can’t revoke their hospitality. This causes problems and pressure for the family and creates ultimately social problem.
I do believe that an exit can be offered by dialogue with the traditional belief. What were the reasons of this system? Protection, not abuse. Secondly, Wantok system should be expanded. Gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us that all people are our Wantoks. Because of the abuses, missionaries were sometimes reluctant to embrace this idea. I was witness of a strong reaction of a new zealous missionary who was very keen to use Pijin in liturgy, but refused to read “Love your neighbours” as “Yu mas lavem olketa wantok blong yu”. But, embracing all people as those of your kin, tribe, family, is evangelical value.
In Intellectual formation of our candidates it is important to discuss these things openly. We, as foreigners, sometimes are harsh to this system, without seeing sometimes our own Wantok systems. Melanesians don’t perceive this system as something intrinsically evil – we shouldn’t do that too. I believe that by trying to see the negative side, we can help to our students to recognise and promote positive aspects of the system.
- Role of women
Women are a life giver in island of Guadalcanal. Since the mythical beginning of island, she is the bearer of life. Marriage in Guadalcanal is always extra tribal, which means that marriage is possible only among members of different tribes. Children belong to the mother’s tribe, not the father’s one. Maternal uncle very often has got great role in the life of the child and, if father dies, resumes responsibility for the child.
The creation myth (story) of the island of Guadalcanal gives to women a much respected role. That respect is unfortunately gone. Reports of child and family abuse are always growing. There was only one woman in National parliament in last 30 years. Women very often have no say in important decisions.
I do believe that women should be recognised in the society, as traditional religion and customs believed and as Christianity promotes.
Implications for Intellectual formation of our candidates
I firmly believe, as I shared already with some of the participants of our meeting, that for our vocational discernment and formation, anthropology and good p[roper understanding of local traditions in of utter importance.
In all areas of the intellectual formation, students must be aware of the positive areas of their culture. Fear, disrespect and shame are the inheritance of intolerant century or so. Many of us, involved into work with Melanesian people are non-Melanesians. Our formation should try to re-evaluate all the positive aspects of the Melanesian culture. It is a challenge for us to try to accommodate our Western structures to the Melanesian society. In fact, I think, if we continue to do that, we will ultimately fail. I was edified seeing how Indian people are proud of their culture and belief. Can we do the same: make Solomon Islanders proud of their traditional “kastom” (and positive beliefs) and good ways of life as an integrated part of their life as Christians?
Many visiting lecturers, who used to come to Solomon Islands to teach in our interdiocesan Holy Name of Mary Seminary, realised very soon that the class dynamics of our students is very different then those of students overseas. The same is important for intellectual formation of our own candidates. Situation in which many of the young people don’t have proper access to the education and even some of those who have, received something very inadequate, reflects in our students.
At this stage, our Solomon Islands’ students are being formed in the Region of Fiji. Being a part of the multinational environment should challenge them in questioning many things which are coming from their tribes and particular cultures.
By being proud Melanesians and Christians, students will be able to evaluate their culture and prune it from areas which are not bringing their proper fruit. There should be no taboos for discussion – intellectual formation goes for growth of the person. By being open to talk about weaknesses of our own cultures, we show our strength to evaluate them in the light of the evangelical values. With that attitude, the existing gap which exists today between members of the traditional beliefs and Christians could be overcome. Talk about “heathens and pagans” should become past. There are people who are trying to recognise presence of our Lord in the world, through the everyday lives in the nature. Hopefully, he will reveal his face to them through those who will be able to recognise his presence in their cultures even before arrival of Christianity. This is the role of those sent to bring the Good news to the poor.
 Fr. Ivica CM is missionary in Solomon Islands. He works as lecturer and formator in major seminary in Holy Name of Mary Seminary in Honiara.