HILLS ALIVE WITH ST PETERS’ MUSIC

It's hard to believe, but the native-born peoples of the Western highlands in Papua New Guinea first set eyes on people of European descent less than one hundred years ago. There's an abundance of old archival film footage recording those early encounters with white men seeking gold. However, it was fourteen years later (1934) that Catholic missionaries from the German based Society of the Divine Word reached the second highest volcanic mountain (now apparently extinct) in Papua New Guinea. It's named Mount Hagen after a German colonial officer, Kurt von Hagen. He who may have been associated with the Lutheran mission that arrived soon after Rev. Fr. William Rose SVD and his Catholic companions. Truth is liberating and empowering. Archbishop Douglas Young SVD tells me that there are now about 160,000 Catholics in his far-flung and mountainous Archdiocese of the Western Highlands. If thirty percent of the total population is Catholic, another thirty percent is Lutheran. However, there's a new wave of missionaries on the move right now, and they may well prove to be wolves in sheep's clothing. Highlanders are being lured away from the old Catholic and Lutheran traditions of faith and worship by gospel fellowship "churches" in the bible-only tradition. Their worship is little more than entertainment by "hillsongsters" in an auditorium:  a feel-good religion that is not too strict about divorce and re-marriage etc. It's not surprising that young Catholics aged 18-25, especially those with a deficient Catholic education, are being traduced by the pied-pipers of this shallow but showy form of Christianity.

I first heard of this culture war from a parishioner of St Peter's, John O'Brien: an architect who has been commissioned by Archbishop Douglas Young to build a new cathedral to mark the 75th anniversary of the Catholic mission on the Western highlands. In talking to John, after one of his working visits to Mt. Hagen, a thought went through my head that had also occurred to John: what about a new evangelisation for the new cathedral! Would it be possible for St Peter's parish to make a contribution?

A few weeks later I met Archbishop Young when he visited St Peter's in Surry Hills and presided at Christmas in the City. I introduced him to seven members of the Youth Schola who sing every Sunday at 10:30am Mass. Their average age is 22. Also present were Carey and Danny Luke, mother and father of the St Peter's choir, which they founded twenty-four years ago, after migrating from PNG. An interesting discussion ensued and it was proposed that the St Peter's Youth Schola travel to Mt Hagen and conduct an intensive live-in Music Camp for young adults. The focus was to be choral music for Eucharistic adoration accompanied by keyboard. The music would be challenging and beautiful – solidly in the Catholic "heartland" tradition and the highlanders would have to learn to harmonise their voices: bass, tenor, alto and soprano.

Nine of us set off rather nervously for the highlands of PNG just after Australia Day this year. Apart from possible political coups and uprisings, we weren't sure what else awaited us. We wanted to offer the highlanders something entirely different musically from the gospel fellowship melodies. How would they react to this? The Archbishop had forewarned us: "It will be a matter of trial and error". Did we have Plan B, if Plan A failed? What if nobody turns up? What if our music is so completely different to what they have been experiencing in their own Sunday Mass liturgies that they reject it out of hand? These were the unsettling thoughts going through our heads as we waited in Port Moresby for the connecting flight to Mt Hagen. What awaited us was surprising, thrilling and ultimately quite humbling.

The first thing that awaited us was a four-door tray deck vehicle and driver. The luggage went in the cabin and nine of us stood in the back. It was the ride of our lives over a pot-holed road past a myriad of street stall markets, past the Seventh Day Adventists and the proposed site for a new gospel-fellowship auditorium. What made the trip particularly exciting is that the heavens opened as soon as we left the airport and we were treated to a "baptism" of stinging torrential rain. It rained, more on than off, for the entire week - monsoonal weather and a-typical for the temperate highlands. The next day, Sunday, a few more surprises were in store for us. There didn't seem to be anybody in the 18 to 25 year old age bracket at the cathedral Mass! However, we were being observed at a distance and the communications network was operating including Triniti Radio 98.1 FM – a Catholic broadcaster with a wide audience.

The next morning at 9am we gathered in the cathedral and began to set up for the first workshop. By 10am, our patient waiting was rewarded. A steady stream of young people came in to join us. By 10:15am about 45 had registered for the workshops. We started with some Taizé chants such as Laudate Dominum and Ubi Caritas. It was wonderful to see small groups of bass, tenor, alto and soprano voices practising in various parts of the cathedral until they were confident enough to come together and make a beautiful and melodious harmony. Incidentally, I counted a football team of young men singing bass, fifteen of them. The morning workshop concluded with Mass and the singing, especially after Holy Communion, nearly raised the roof.

After lunch, there was sport at the Youth Centre. Apart from the bass-singing footballers, who were crazy about the Brisbane Broncos, there were many who were keen to learn how to play indoor cricket. This sport became so popular during the week that we had to leave the cricket set at the Youth Centre when we left for the airport. By 4pm another music workshop was in full swing and this time they had to master a more difficult musical piece: Ravanello's O Salutaris. Once again, these enthusiastic young adults applied themselves assiduously to task of learning the somewhat tricky harmonies. The end result was glorious and uplifting. The afternoon concluded with a Holy Hour of Adoration interspersed with Eucharistic music that had been learnt during the day. The group resolved to learn the harmonies for the traditional Benediction Hymns, so that the next day would be even better than the first. It was wonderful to see morale and confidence growing as the day progressed!

There was to be a concert of secular and sacred music at the Youth Centre on the evening of our last day in Mt Hagen, so the evenings were dedicated to cultural exchange and concert preparation. We discovered, much to our delight, that the highlanders are highly fond of sight gags, slapstick routines and colourful dances with wryly comic overtones. We could see that the concert, which would have more input from the locals than from us, was shaping up to be a significant cultural event and a lot of fun.

We all went to bed exhausted at the end of that first day, The boys stayed in the guest cottages, the girls in the convent (although they almost missed curfew) and I stayed with Archbishop Young whose house is right beside Triniti Radio which broadcasts 24 / 7 from almost sound-proof rooms. As we lay our weary heads on pillows after praying the rosary and thanking God for the blessings of the day, sleep may have come slowly to some after the excitement of experiencing what it means to be Catholic in the remote highlands of PNG. No mozzies, no flies, no humidity! If it weren't for Original Sin, which makes its effects felt in every culture, this part of the world close to the clouds may have been mistaken for the threshold to an earthly paradise!

We were all close to tears at the end of the week. So many wonderful things had happened through music – a particular kind of music! Now we have so much work to do: keeping in touch with our friends in Mt. Hagen, recording CD's so that they can continue to learn wonderful compositions neglected in so many parishes for too long just because they are considered to be difficult or somewhat "highbrow". In the new evangelisation, music in our parishes has to surpass in excellence the mediocre offerings of the "hillsongsters"! St Peter wants it.

Postscript:

If anyone would like to sponsor or partially sponsor the cost of flying a PNG highlander to Sydney for further training, this would be a great contribution to the new evangelisation for a new cathedral in Mt. Hagen. Contact Fr. Bill Milsted on 9698 1948 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .