When Fr Ennio Mantovani SVD set out from Europe as a young missionary priest in 1962 he planned to bring the light of the Gospel to the people of Papua New Guinea. When he arrived, he found the light was already there, in the people and the culture.
Now, over 50 years later, he has launched a new book in which he says his life as a missionary has taught him that God is present among all people, everywhere, loving them as he loves each and every person.
The book, entitled The Dema and the Christ is Fr Ennio’s third book of reflection on his life as a missionary.
It tells how Italian-born Fr Ennio set out as a missionary to bring the Gospel to the Melanesian peoples. However, living as a missionary among the people of the Simbu region in the PNG highlands, he soon discovered not the darkness of minds and cultures that he was supposed to encounter and fight, but an amazing presence of the light he meant to bring through the Gospel.
Over his years in PNG, he immersed himself in, and studied, the cultures of the people and their relationship to the Gospel values.
“The book is my reflection on my years in PNG and the way I experienced the cultures and religions of PNG and the way I reacted to them,” he says.
“It’s about how I personally, as a Divine Word Missionary experienced these cultures and how they challenged me personally, and how I answered them personally.”
Fr Ennio says that in the western world, we have been formed to see the Melanesian people as primitive.
“Actually, I experienced them to be as intelligent, spiritual and advanced as I was,” he says.
“But they challenge me, because they challenge my Christian tradition and the way that I look at them; the way we look at their religions as primitive; the stupid things we say about them, which are of course, testimony only to our own ignorance.”
Fr Ennio says his personal experience brought into question existing missiological method.
“I thought I was going there to bring light to darkness,” he says. “Actually, I found the light there already. So I came to realise that God must have loved the Papua New Guineans as well, before the missionaries came, and that I was going there not to bring the Good News, but to discover there what God has been telling them in their culture.”
He says to do that he had to learn their culture, their world view, and the symbols they were using.
“As missionaries, we have to be humble. You don’t impose your understanding of your Christianity on other people. There are different ways of being Christian.
“We have to allow people to be themselves. Because before, we had been forcing people of different cultures into a European model and then complaining that they didn’t fit.”
After his 15 years as a missionary in the highlands, Fr Ennio worked for 20 years at the Melanesian Institute in Goroka, PNG, researching, lecturing and writing on Melanesian religions and cultures. In 2003 he took up residence in Melbourne and began teaching full-time at the Yarra Theological Union, where he is currently Emeritus.
His book, The Dema and The Christ, was launched by Emeritus Professor Paul Beirne at YTU on June 5.
Photos by Trien Nguyen SVD