INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AND ITS SIGNIFICANCE TO PASTORAL FORMATION: THE NEED FOR PASTORAL-THEOLOGICAL REFLECTION PAPUA NEW GUINEA CONTEXT
Rolando C. Santos, CM[*]
I would like to discuss this topic of Interreligious Dialogue and Its Significance to Pastoral Formation from the context of Papua New Guinea where I have been a seminary formator for the past 8 years now. However, I would like to make it clear right from the start that my area of responsibility in the seminary is not so much in the pastoral but rather in the spiritual formation of the seminarians. However, I have also accompanied our seminarians a few times in their pastoral exposures and done a course on Melanesian culture, and it is from this background that I would like to share my thoughts on the topic.
Interreligious Dialogue in a predominantly Christian country
From a census done in Papua New Guinea in the year 2000, 96.2% of the respondents indicated that they were Christian. Of these, 27% were Catholic. Out of a total population of 5.1 million, only 1.4% were non-Christian. Of these only 475 were Hindu, 756 Muslim and 800 Buddhist. From these statistics one can easily see that membership in the non-Christian religions are very minimal in PNG, and their presence can hardly be seen or felt in public. One might ask then whether interreligious dialogue is relevant at all in the pastoral formation of the local seminarian.
A pastoral experience
Once I asked one of our Highlands seminarians, what he would do if, upon returning to his village, he were he to be asked by the village chief to join in the tribal fight. I asked this question because I was just in the Highlands with some seminarians and there we visited at least three villages which were totally devastated by these fights.
Tribal fighting is a rather common occurrence in PNG, esp. in the Highlands region. When there is a tribal fight, not only are people killed or wounded, but also many innocent people, esp. women and children, go hungry because the enemy come and destroy all the vegetation of the other tribe, kill all their animals and burn every structure, and this fighting can go on for months or even years till a reconciliation has been worked out.
Going back to the seminarian, without any second thought, he told me that he would go and join in the tribal fight. Surprised at his answer, I asked why. He said “because it is our culture”. I answered back: but, what does your Christian faith tell you? He just kept quiet, obviously annoyed at me. Now, this seminarian was already in third year theology or his final year in the seminary.
Understanding the experience in the light of the Traditional Melanesian Religions
Some of you might ask what the above case has to do with interreligious dialogue and pastoral formation? While PNG would consider itself a Christian nation, it is worth noting that these people have become so only recently, some only 35 years ago, others 100 years or so at the most. Before the arrival of Christianity, the religion that prevailed in the land for hundreds, if not thousands of years, was the traditional bio-cosmic Melanesian religions. These have played a significant role in fashioning the thinking, attitudes and ethical behaviour of Melanesians, including our seminarians, and still continue to do so up to our present day. Hence, in present-day Melanesia you can still find many people who strongly believe in spirits and magical forces, and practice occult rituals, witchcraft or sanguma, divination, and animal sacrifices.
One key element of these traditional Melanesian Religions is gutpela sindaun,“ or well-being. It is the highest value for the clan. “Gutpela sindaun” meant security, health, wealth, growth, prestige, and good relationships. One attains gutpela sindaun by being in good terms with the community and its leaders. The seminarian’s almost automatic response to join in the tribal fight obviously came from this desire to be in good standing with his community and to attain gutpela sindaun both for himself and his people.
Judging the experience in the light of Christian faith
We can probably say that the value of gutpela sindaun is similar to our Christian understanding of the Kingdom values of justice, love, joy, and peace. For us Christians, as well as for Melanesians, these are ultimate values.
A common problem, however, in Traditional Melanesian Religions is the fact that the value of gutpela sindaun is often applied in a legalistic, if not un-discerning, way in many situations. In the case of our seminarian, he was willing to join the tribal fight because in his thinking this would bring about gutpela sindaun for himself and for his tribe. But, one can question whether this assumption is true. In one village I visited in the Highlands, the people there have been complaining of having not much to eat because they could not even safely go to their gardens to plant. They could not even go beyond the boundaries of their village because they could be killed. Tribal fighting, under these circumstances, is not really helping them attain the gutpela sindaun they have been longing for.
It is important then to help the seminarian to question his decision to join in the tribal fighting in view of the traditional religious value of gutpela sindaun. It is also important to help him to discern what it is he truly wants for himself and his people: life or death, peace or violence, reconciliation or payback. Choosing life, peace, forgiveness and reconciliation is choosing Christ, the Prince of Peace who came that we may have life and have it more abundantly.
Implications for Pastoral formation
Formation in interreligious dialogue definitely has a significant place in pastoral formation.
We need to expose our students to other religions, esp. on how these religions affect the lives of the poor, and form them in such a way that they develop adequate understanding, skills, attitude and spirituality needed to do dialogue with them. It is also of utmost importance that we accompany our students in this experience of interreligious dialogue, esp. by conducting pastoral-theological reflections with them as they interact with the different religions. in Melanesia it is esp. important for both formators and formandi to gain adequate understanding of the traditional Melanesian religions and how they influence the day to day living of the people; to critique and discern how these beliefs are lived and acted out so as to discover the seeds of the Word in them, as well as purify or reject what goes against universal truth, what is truly human, and the values of the Kingdom. Exposure to and dialogue with other religions are important to the over-all formation of our students but without proper accompaniment and pastoral-theological reflection, interreligious dialogue can only lead our seminarians to deeper confusion and inner conflict instead of helping them become compassionate servants and effective evangelizers of the poor.
[*] Fr. Rolando Satos, CM is the former missionary in Papua New Guinea and currently Provincial Visitor of the Philippine Province.