Vatican City (Fides Service) – “Oceania is a continent of contrasting characteristics: it is the largest and most dispersed continent but at the same time the smallest for geographically inhabitable area and population. It is ancient since it comprises traditional civilisations of Papua New Guinea and North Australia, and it is in the front line of modernity with countries such as Australia and New Zealand. With regard to Christianity it is the continent most recently evangelised but also the continent where the Gospel has borne most fruit in fact it is almost entirely Christian. Catholics are about 9 million or about one third of the entire population of Oceania.
Catholicism developed first of all in Australia and New Zealand thanks to immigration, then in the mid 19th century in the Pacific Islands. Catholic communities grew everywhere: in Hawaii, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Numea, Papeete, Samoa, and all the other Islands spread over the immense Pacific Ocean. Today there are flourishing Catholic communities everywhere.
Oceania in general suffers from a scarcity of clergy and religious personnel. Nevertheless it is a continent which offers great hope for the future. Quite rightly the Apostolic Exhortation “Ecclesia in Oceania” affirms: "The field in which they (priests and religious) operate is vast and their number is relatively small. Nevertheless, Oceania has many young people who are a precious spiritual resource; among them, undoubtedly, many are called to the priesthood or the consecrated life" (n. 48).
With regard to vocations Oceania has two different images: on the one hand Australia and New Zealand, which are having to face a marked decrease in priestly and religious vocations caused by secularisation. On the other, instead, the Islands which register a boom of vocations for diocesan clergy and for religious congregations.
The Islands of Oceania were evangelised in the past by great religious congregations and missionary institutes, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart, Marists, PIME, Missionaries of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, Divine Word Missionaries, Franciscans, etc. These missionaries not only evangelised making their generous contribution of martyrs, they also started the process of promoting the local clergy. This process was necessarily slow due to cultural difficulties but it began to grow around the middle of the 20th century giving priority to religious vocations and then extending to diocesan clergy.
Today we witness a Springtime of vocations both to the religious life and to the diocesan priesthood. Significant, the case of the Bishops’ Conference of Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands: until only a few years ago (1980-1990) there was only one national seminary for philosophy and theology and two regional minor seminaries. Today we have five seminaries for philosophy and theology and the minor seminaries are four. Indeed these seminaries are not sufficient and some diocese feel the need to open their own diocesan seminaries. This is the case for example in the diocese of Vanimo, which has a minor and a major seminary with a total 110 students.
Vocations among women are also increasing considerably in Congregations which came from Europe and Australia and in local congregations. Of course there are difficulties which emerge mainly with regard to perseverance and attitudes. This is an indication that criteria for selection and formation must be improved. This is more than natural is a geographical area which is young from the Christian point of view and extremely young with regard to priestly formation.
It should be said that cultural identity is strongly felt in Oceania, particularly in Papua New Guinea, where there are human communities dating to 50.000 years ago. The cultural pride of these peoples could be enriching if positively amalgamated with indications for priestly formation coming from Vatican II and the Apostolic Exhortation "Pastores Dabo Vobis", avoiding formative attitudes and demands not in keeping with the spirituality of the Catholic priesthood. Everything indicates however that we are on the right path and there is a keen desire to follow the guidelines issued by the Church.
This is a source of hope both for the evangelisation of Oceania, which must take ever deeper root, and for universal evangelisation which cannot do without such a potentially rich contribution as that of the peoples of the Pacific. Bishop Cesare Bonivento
(Fides Service 27/1/2004, lines 54, words 721)