In April this year, Archbishop Timothy and l travelled to Port Moresby to join the bishops conferences of Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, New Zealand, the Pacific Island nations and Australia for our four yearly meeting.
The Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania meeting allowed us to focus our common concerns on human rights, climate change and care for the environment. Our theme was ‘Care of our Common Home of Oceania, A Sea of Possibilities.’
We gathered in Port Moresby five weeks after the devastating earthquake had struck the highlands of PNG.
This had caused crops to be lost and some 35,000 people to have lost their homes, and a total of 125 people to be killed.
At several times during the large public Masses and the meeting, we paused to remember everyone who had been affected by this tragedy.
We were fortunate to receive presentations on the effects of climate change given to us by eminent scientists.
These helped the bishops to understand the impact of the changing climate on the small island communities in the Pacific.
The bishops of the dioceses in Vanuatu, Fiji and Tonga shared their experiences of very severe cyclones that have wreaked catastrophic damage on their islands. At the same time, the people on the Marshall Islands have suffered from a crippling drought between 2015 and 2016.
The bishops told us of the rising sea levels. Islands have been inundated by sea water which has destroyed once productive land and in some cases forced people to leave their home islands that have been “drowned”. Fiji has been able to take these climate change refugees to this time.
The FCBCO meeting benefitted from a review of the environmental challenges facing Oceania. The theme of our meeting constantly stood as a reminder to us that we are interconnected and decisions made in one part of our region can cause irreparable damage on other nations. It was inspired by the encyclical letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si.
Cardinal Parolin, the Secretary of State for the Holy See, attended the meeting. He urged the bishops to fight the ideology of individualism that tends to cause alienation between people and harms the environment, as he quoted from the encyclical. The cardinal pointed to the erosion of communities and natural connections which leave people more and more isolated, and contributes to social decline.
His words were to frame our discussions on how the nations of Oceania must approach development of their economies whilst balancing care for the marine ecosystems and respecting traditional land and sea owners. The challenge presented by deep seabed mining was scrutinised, as it appears that the technology to be used does not have sufficient scientific research behind it. Questions still remain on the impact of this form of mining on coral reefs and the important tuna fishery to the north east of PNG, and the effects that it could have on Fiji, Niue, Tonga and the Cook Islands.
I found it interesting to learn of the strong attachment of the peoples of Oceania to land and sea. Clans are the traditional owners of areas of the sea as well as land. The people have deep spiritual ties to these areas and they are dependent on them for their livelihood.
The machinery which is to be used for underwater mining has not been tested or used for mining in the countries where they have been manufactured. The effects of silting in the otherwise pristine waters of the seas around Manus, New Britain and New Ireland are not known. There has been enough research on ocean currents to raise major concerns in the minds of the peoples of PNG and the Solomon Islands about deep sea mining as it is proposed, and the use of the machinery that has already been delivered.
A session of the conference was devoted to a discussion on the detention centre on Manus Island. There is considerable feeling in PNG about the situation where 600 asylum seekers had been placed in the centre. The problem for Australia, as they see it, has been shifted to become PNG’s problem. We were told that the centre was closed late last year but hundreds of detainees have remained, and have been moved to transitional camps. Their futures are uncertain. The bishops have pleaded for more compassionate and just treatment of asylum seekers.
I returned to Perth grateful for the opportunity to listen to and support the bishops throughout Oceania.
The churches of the Pacific are vibrant and the faith of the people is very important to them. They have much to teach us in our comfortable and well-resourced communities. We left the conference more aware of the great challenges being faced by our neighbours and committed to do our part to protect our common home.
From pages 6 and 7 of Issue 13: ‘God, Science, Church’ of The Record Magazine