“Christmas in the jungles of Figeri and Fas” – 1st part

We publish the chronicles written by Fr. Martín Prado in the Fas and Figeri jungles of Papua New Guinea mission. This text of daily records was addressed by Fr. Martin to his relatives and friends. Hence, it has a very personal style. Nevertheless, we wanted to publish it considering that it will be useful and edifying for all the members of the religious family. Since the chronicle is quite long we have divided it into five parts.

 

1st part

Together with Tomás (Ravaioli) and Maxi (Navarro) we decided that one of us should go and offer some help to the Bishop for this Christmas season, by going to some place in the jungle which has a greater need of a priest.

I went to see the Bishop. He told me that at that moment the plane that can go very far was available, but at the same time, there was a priest alone and needy in Utai about four hours away by car (since sometime, some communities in the jungle can be accessed by 4×4 vehicle, thanks to the companies that are deforesting). He told me that I could go there, or, if it wouldn’t be a problem, it would be better to go to help in Fas -another mission base or center dependent on Utai- which has very little pastoral care because the Parish priest has to look after also 60 other villages besides his own Parish. In order to get to these villages one has to walk two days or have a vehicle that can take you there; in 2014 the community was visited only once. The difficulty is that in Fas there is neither a house where one could stay nor a chapel. I thought: “In Bariloche[1] we spent just like this for one month… can I not be courageous enough to go there so that many people can celebrate Christmas?”

Tuesday 16th

We departed in the bishopric’s Land Cruiser. I bought some food, prepared the backpack, the sacristy and I asked the Diocese for a soccer ball and a solar panel the size of tablet, to charge the phone and to have some light.

We went to Utai… I wanted to see first the Parish priest, to speak with him and also to give him a Christmas gift. When I arrived, Father was not there. He had left to visit some communities in the mountain. The father’s name is Fredrib. We went near the river with our vehicle to receive him when he arrived. He was truly happy to see us: me and the brother who had come with me for company.

I brought him some tea, because they told me that he likes it. We were able to speak a little about the pastoral activities. He is also new here and is learning the pidgin language. The Parish was without a priest before he came. It seems that in the past, Utai was a great mission center; they cultivated rice, they sometimes had cows and there was also a community of Philippine sisters. Now there is no more of those things. I felt sorry to see that the poor priest lives in a house that is almost collapsing…, and also it seemed to me that he didn’t have a very Thomistic formation. I suggested to him that we tidy up the house. Now he is alone because his companion was frequently sick of malaria and had to go to Vanimo to rest and recover.

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Wednesday 17th

During the night there was a great storm, the rivers overflowed and the roads were quite damaged, so, it wasn’t possible to go to Fas in the morning. The rivers were really overflowing and the only vehicle of Utai was at the other side of the rivers. But a man came to tell me that he would make the best effort to take me to Fas. At two or three in the afternoon he arrived with a Land Cruiser belonging to the deforesting company that was nearby.

Before going out, Gabriel, a youth of 18 years old came over. I didn’t know him before, but he told me that he wanted to accompany me during these two weeks… He seemed very good. Someone told me that he’s studying in the high school at Vanimo and that there he is a friend of a priest whom he helps as an altar server. Today, in the trip that we made on foot, he carried everything and also he prayed the rosary quite well. It was really providential, since his family is from Fas and he knows everybody there; he knows also how to be an altar server and how to prepare everything for mass.

We departed in the Land Cruiser. In the front was Fr. Fredrib and I was at the back of the van with others who wanted to accompany me, among them were some girls of the SSVM mercy house who are now on vacations. We were quite packed; I was standing up… but, everybody was very happy. By the way, I realized that the driver was a little drunk…! It was really a great danger, and even more because of these roads… I entrusted ourselves together with some other passengers to Our Lady of Luján.

After an  half-hour journey we reached a place in which it was impossible to go ahead by car.

There are two routes to reach Fas; one was closed (the deforesting company closes it so that the people wouldn’t steal the gasoline), the other was blocked by a tree that had fallen down the night before. So, we started to think about what we could do. Maybe we could go back to Utai and return the following day; but after so many difficulties in finding a vehicle, it would be better not to take the risk… and also I would have lost one or two days more. So, I decided that we would go on foot.

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Immediately Gabriel, the boy who was accompanying me, took up the sacristy items that were in a large and heavy baggage, and the others took their own things. We walked for two hours through a very beautiful and mountainous landscape. I remembered the hikes at the Atuel’s canyon[2], and as usual, with the youth it was a very pleasant hike.

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After walking a while I decided to write all these things down. At the beginning I didn’t want to do so because it seemed to be a little showy or that it could vitiate the rectitude of intention: “O THE MISSIONARY!”… But this is the normal scruple of the one who isn’t humble and thinks that what he has is because of him and so he doesn’t want to show or share it. Along the way, going up and downhill with the slippers, holding the heavy backpack and with the entire cassock sweated, I realized all the graces that God was giving me; the possibility of coming to such a place to preach the Gospel, the grace of undergoing these difficulties and travels with the only purpose of announcing the Gospel, of carrying forth grace and salvation to these souls… I really don’t deserve all of these. It is an honor and an undeserved grace, and so, I have to share it. I don’t have to boast; on the contrary, if I didn’t share my experience, it  would be selfish and unjust, because I’m here as an IVE missionary. My joys and difficulties are also yours. In the future someone else will take my place and I will take his. This is not my work, but the work of Institute and of the Church.

We arrived at sunset. The two towns and the small school are in the valley, and going downhill we had a very beautiful view of the place. It was possible to see the two towns, Fas and Figeri, separated from each other by two kilometers and both are at the riverside; and between them, on the other side, the little school with two humble huts to lodge the teachers. A little further is the house of the nurse with a small room for first aid.

They hadn’t known that I was coming. But anyway, they quickly prepared a house, they tidied it up and they put a mattress and a motorcycle battery so I would have some light. We arrived and we went to the river to have a bath. This thing of arriving tired, dirty and very hot and going to have a bath in a river is very nice!, you relax a lot…

Maybe if you had to do it every day it would tire you, but under these circumstances, it is very relaxing. One can also make use of the opportunity to have some conversations… Everywhere they have places marked the “wara man”, man’s water. Only men can go there, and they take the bath like Adam (naked)…

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I was able to speak with the catechism teacher, and he told me that during that same night he would go to the closest communities to announce that the priest has arrived and that the following day there would be Mass in the morning. When I asked him if 7am was very early for the mass he answered me that there was no problem, and that everybody would be very happy and would come at any hour.

They told me also that in Figeri they had built a very beautiful and big church, and that nobody had yet celebrated Mass there, so they asked me to go to bless it and to inaugurate it…

What a big grace for me and how much is the necessity of priest! They’d had this church ready since some while ago but there was no priest to bless it.

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Thursday 18th

During the morning, I celebrated Mass in a classroom and many people came from the neighboring villages. Later on, I had a meeting with the catechism teachers and we made the schedule for the following days. We gathered together in a house used for cooking that had a roof made of dry grass, walls of sticks and a wooden floor elevated almost one meter from the ground. There we organized: Baptisms, Confessions, rosary every afternoon with choir practices for Christmas and some sports competitions. We scheduled a day for going to the furthest villages to confess, baptize and celebrate the Mass. They were very happy and they agreed with everything. While we were speaking, I sipped some Mathe (traditional Argentinian tea). They looked at me with amazement and contentment: they are truly observant…

We wrote the schedule in three pages, so that there might be one notice in every village. Later I realized that the best thing is to transmit the message orally; very few know how to read. Then I wrote a letter addressed to the Parish priest asking him if he would like to inaugurate the Church and if he agrees that the church might be under the patronage of St. John Paul II. Neither the village nor the church has a name. They asked me and I proposed that it could be called with the name of the first and only Pope who has visited Papua New Guinea. They were very happy!

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Until some years ago this place was a mission base with a chapel, a house for the priest who used to come only for some days, and also a school. Now there is none of these; luckily a little elementary school is still there. Six months ago, with the help of some companies which are logging wood from the forest, it was possible to build new classrooms, and the local people also constructed two houses for the teachers. I’m living now in the house of one of them who went to his home town to spend the Christmas season. Also, one month ago they built a first aid room that is located just 200 meters from the school.

The area is more than peaceful; here I live alone with the teacher’s family. Two kilometers to the left, and crossing the two rivers (they aren’t so big; you can wade across them with the water up to the knees), there is one of the villages called Fas. On the other side, going one kilometer to the right, there is the other village, where they have constructed the new chapel (which is, up to now, the only one in the zone) and that is called Figeri.

I went to the river to refresh and I asked them to boil me some water for cooking noodles. Later I lay down a while in the hammock I brought from the Parish in Vanimo… and I slept deeply.

In the afternoon I went to visit the two closest villages, that is, Fas and Figeri. All houses are pretty, picturesque and very little. There are more or less twenty houses, but these accommodate more than twenty families because here the people lives in clans.

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In order to go to both villages, it is necessary to cross the river on foot. It is very nice, it is totally an adventure! but later, I had to cross it at night after the rosary and the confessions… The slippers were broken because of the mud and the stones. I also had to roll up the cassock and the pants… But it is a good thing, because you can think of God and the souls. As always, the cross makes you touch reality and makes you remember the ultimate motives.

Before saying the rosary I preached a few points on prayer. I explained what to tell God, how to treat him.

The new chapel was full and very quiet; they were very eager to listen. Their eyes were fixed on every gesture that I made. Because they were so concentrated, it was quite easy for me to speak with simplicity and clearness; it seemed that they were understanding everything better than in the other places where I’ve preached and tried to teach the same things. During the rosary many of them went to confession. Everyone, since one or two years ago, haven’t had the opportunity to do so.

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Later I returned to the school and approached the fire where they shared with me a plate of rice and chard. I ate a big plate as they do… I enjoyed it very much. Finally I came to write.

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[1] It is a place in southern Argentina where the IVE seminarians go for summer holidays. There they go hiking, trekking and they make many other types of activities. [Note of translator]

[2] The Atuel’s canyon, or Cañón del Atuel, is located in the province of Mendoza, in the City of San Rafael. It is also a touristic spot where the IVE minor seminarians go for vacations.

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