By Maria Lozano
“Please, come to help!” Those were the words that led Sister Caterina Gasparatto to set out from 21st-century Italy and go back in time to the Stone Age – or more precisely to the diocese of Bereina in the central province of Papua New Guinea. So it was that, in response to the appeal from Bishop Rochus Josef Tatamai M.S.C, Sister Caterina, of the Cavanis Community Jesus Good Shepherd, arrived here in October 2013, together with three other sisters – an Italian, a Filipino and a Vietnamese. “I’d never heard about Papua New Guinea before; we were moved by the Holy Spirit”, she recalls.
The diocese of Bereina is regarded as the poorest in the country, and covers some 7,300 square miles (19,000 km²). It has around 97,000 inhabitants, of whom 85% are Catholics. The city of the same name is 100 miles (160 km) from Port Moresby. The sisters are in fact following in the footsteps of the first Catholic missionaries, who arrived here in 1885. “They were French, and funnily enough, even today the name “Alain” is the commonest name and used by many of the inhabitants of Bereina”, Sister Caterina explains.
“They don’t live in houses in the way we are accustomed to”, she explains during her visit to the headquarters of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN). “They live around camp fires, fairly widely dispersed. There are no schools… to speak of, since they don’t have any… Nor do they have any toilets…” And she goes on to explain, “One day we heard them saying that they had built some toilets, and I was very interested, because we were also hoping to do something of the kind at the school and I thought that if they were well made, then we could ask the same person to do the building for us. I asked them to show me them, and we walked for 10 minutes, until we came to a place where there were two holes dug in the ground, separated by a board in the middle. Those were the toilets… In the end we build them ourselves. It is not that difficult; you learn everything here… at least, with the help of the Internet.”
One of the greatest challenges facing the sisters is the battle against the human, social and economic ruin caused by the practice of chewing the betel nut. This hallucinogenic substance not only disfigures the streets – and people’s teeth – with its characteristic blood-red colour, but is also paralysing the development of the whole of society here. “It is such a powerful stimulant that people can go for three days without eating, and moreover everyone takes it, both men and women… The result is that they don’t bother about their work, or about their children, or about anything… They only have one preoccupation and one overriding concern in their lives, and that is to get hold of the betel nut”, Sister Caterina explains. The custom of chewing betel nuts is very ancient; it was used at weddings, when making peace treaties, and for funeral rites – but in recent years its indiscriminate use, even among children, has increased dangerously. This so-called “green gold” creates addiction and causes mouth cancers, in addition to being behind many serious problems of domestic violence and delinquency.
The sisters of the Cavanis Community Jesus Good Shepherd are tackling this problem above all through their own special charism, namely the education of children and young people, and by caring for them like mothers and fathers. “There is a great deal of hope. We have just opened a school and we already have 170 children, aged between six and twelve. This is the first time any of them have set foot in a school, which means to say that those aged twelve are at the same level as the six-year-olds. But they are very intelligent and they learn very quickly. Which means that we have to work very hard to stay ahead of them”, Sister Caterina grumbles, with an expressive gesture of her hand that clearly reveals her Italian origins. There are also girls at the school, she explains happily – for this is not the normal practice in Papua New Guinea, since they usually stay at home to help with the domestic chores or in cultivating the plots of land. Many of these girls are even sold, while still very young, to the families of their future husbands.
The sisters have also seen changes in the group of young people who suddenly appeared on the first day of their arrival – and who stayed on to sleep beneath the trees around their house, in order to protect the sisters. The boys helped to build the school, and they continue to help with all kinds of different work. “Right from the start we told them that we would give them three meals a day, if they stopped chewing the betel nuts, and that is what has happened. Since that day, they have stopped chewing it, and they are a great help to us.” One of those young men was Lucas, aged 20. “He had never been to school, and even though he was very shy he made it clear to us that he wanted to learn. It was my job to teach him to write. You can’t imagine how hard it is to start holding a pencil at the age of 20… But I will never forget the look of sheer happiness on his face when he managed to write his name for the first time.” Sister herself likewise glows with happiness when she tells us the story of Leo, aged 21: “We started with simple maths, just grouping and adding. In the beginning it was difficult for him to grasp the idea of units, tens and hundreds, but the time came when we started to do additions, and when he finally managed to get his first sum right, he couldn’t believe it, and the tears rolled down his cheeks… It was beautiful, really…”
“Is it really possible to forgive?” This was the astonished question of one of the boys attending the religious instruction classes of the sisters, one day when they were discussing the topic of Confession. This is another area where the sisters have seen a change. In Papua New Guinea there are between 800 and 1,000 different ethnic groups and a total of 836 indigenous languages, many totally different from one another. Many of the problems between the members of the different ethnic groups and clans end in tribal warfare, sometimes with grave consequences. It is not always easy to convey such values as reconciliation and forgiveness, though it is possible. “When a boy insulted me for no reason, I was able to go to him and explain to him that this was not nice”, one of the boys told Sister Caterina afterwards. “Without our explanations, this would have ended in a fight”, Sister concludes.
Sister Caterina wants to pass on her thanks to the benefactors of the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) which has been working together with the sisters by funding various different projects. Among others ACN has helped fund the purchase of a truck. “Look! Amazing… Sister is driving a lorry!” The boys cannot get over their astonishment at seeing Sister behind the wheel. “They were so happy” she recalls. “They look on the lorry as though it belongs to them. It can carry between 50 and 70 people. We use it a great deal: to take them to the catechetical sessions, and to go to the religious celebrations at the ‘cathedral’ – which according to our Western notions is really more of a chapel. If we did not have a truck, it would not be possible to do so many things. So many educational plans and so many activities would be frustrated. Because if we could not take them there, they could not get there – for we are 25 miles (30 km) from the centre of Bereina. But now we can let our imagination fly! Thank you to everyone who has helped make this dream come true!”