The crowd was ecstatic. There was cheering and dancing. Little children threw flowers at me, and people reached out for a handshake as I made my way to the welcome arch. This was the jubilant mood the day I arrived at Sacred Heart of Jesus parish in Ulupu in the Diocese of Wewak, Papua New Guinea.
At the welcome arch, I was adorned with a garland and shook hands with some of the leaders. Then, there was a procession with singing and dancing. The parish is one of forty-six parishes in the diocese. Like other parishes, Sacred Heart of Jesus parish had been without a resident parish priest for the past eight years.
I arrived in Ulupu on October 17, 2015. The installation Mass was held the following day, which was Mission Sunday. I presided over the Eucharistic celebration. Concelebrating with me was Father Adam Sroka SVD, who represented Divine Word Missionaries of the Wewak District, and Father Cornelius Amil, dean of the Maprik deanery, representing Bishop Jozef Roszynski SVD, bishop of Diocese of Wewak. Fathers Adam and Cornelius presented the keys of the church and the tabernacle to me to signify that I assumed the responsibility of the parish as its new parish priest.
Sacred Heart parish has three outstations: Saint John, Sia bilong Pita (Chair of Peter), and Holy Cross. The parish also has a primary school and a health center. A visiting priest came to Ulupu for Eucharistic celebrations only at Christmas, Easter, the parish feast day, and the celebration of the sacraments like baptism and marriage. Otherwise, the people gathered for Sunday celebrations in the absence of a priest, during which they heard the Word of God proclaimed in the Liturgy of the Word and received Holy Communion. The administration of the parish rested on the shoulders of the dedicated, tireless catechist, Ambrose Klasimbi.
I celebrate Mass daily in Ulupu now, and attendance is very high. The older parishioners rejoice that they can participate in the Eucharistic celebration and receive the Body and Blood of Christ. People who drifted from actively practicing their Catholic faith because of the absence of priest are returning. We have prepared and received a number of them back to the faith community. There are many more people receiving religious instruction so they, too, can return to the Catholic faith this year.
During the first weeks I was in Ulupu, I sat in the confessional for hours because the people had not had the opportunity to receive the sacrament of reconciliation for a long time. Many people have requested baptism for their children and couples are asking for the sacrament of matrimony. We will begin preparation for these sacraments this year.
I learned that a priest seldom visited the outstation mission stations over the past eight years. The children are especially fascinated by my presence. Many of the children in the outstations have never been to Mass. When I am in the confessional, the children peep in at me sometimes and giggle quietly when I raise my hands to give absolution to a penitent.
As parish priest, I have made education my top priority because less than ten percent of the population completes a tenth grade education. Care of the sick and formation of youth are also at the heart of my ministry. I hope to build a multipurpose parish hall for religious education classes, workshops, and other training opportunities.
The parishioners in Ulupu and in the three mission stations have a deep, lively faith that is enriching, life-giving, and full of hope. They share it with each other and with me. Through them, I have experienced a renewal of my own faith, and I am re-energized in my missionary vocation. I never stop thanking God for bringing us all together. May he continue to bestow his abundant gifts on us!