Apologies for the blog silence over the last week – I had a fairly exhausting tour of some of the 51 chapels / ‘destinos’ celebrating the Ash Weds liturgy. It was a fascinating experience. The island has a population of over 90,000 (but only 15 cars / jeeps). The numbers stem from the time when it was the worlds biggest leper colony (6,000+). The doctors, nurses and patients all brought their families with them – so the population has grown since. Now there are only 6 patients with leprosy and they are confined to a hospital ward. We celebrate mass with them once a week and last night I took my laptop and projector and we watched Jurassic Park together. I think it might have scared them a bit too much! But they were very excited and lots of hugs when I arrived and left.
Some of the remoter villages are electricity free, I remember one night showing a group of about 50 villagers webpages that I had saved on my laptop – their first experience of the internet! The majority of the population in these areas are referred to as ‘IP’s’ (indigenous peoples). The original inhabitants of the island they fled in fear to the remoter parts when the lepers started arriving. The Jesuits have now turned their attention to helping them – with a literacy program ably assisted by the impressive Cart Wheel Foundation. The parish priest Fr Lito told me that this is already working wonders in terms of self-esteem and confidence. When he first would go to the areas the IP’s would hide behind the coconut trees, too shy to come and talk. Now they are discussing and planning ways in which they can strengthen their communities.
As a priest it has, paradoxically, been one of the most enjoyable beginnings of Lent I can imagine. As always the hospitality was wonderful – lots of crabs and freshly caught fish. I suppose fasting is less meaningful when you are living a fairly subsistence lifestyle and life is more precarious for many as there are less fish and more competition for stock from technologically advanced mainlanders.
I have had my leg in a brace since my operation four weeks ago – so this became a useful prop for homilies. The discipline of wearing a bandage and a leg brace to allow healing has its parallels with lent. And slowly taking it off and unravelling the bandage certainly kept the children’s attention! Many of them staring at me anyway – as though I was from another planet. It was said that for the younger children I was the first white person to visit their village. One phenomenon that was unusual was that after 10 masses I would explain how I was available for confession – not one person took me up on it. The Sacrament of Reconciliation certainly seems to be practiced more over here than in the West – so this lack of interest was a surprise. I have since learnt that many priests have commented on the lack of the sense of personal sin amongst the people – which is an inheritance of the lepers colony. I suppose that maybe a psychology of outcasts from the ‘morality’ of the world. At one chapel – after mass they came rushing up to me – At last ! I thought, getting ready to celebrate the sacrament, but no they wanted to know if any of my friends wanted to buy their own island……
3 Million Pesos – (£50,000) – a snip if you ask me! Anyone interested?
(Highlights of my week on video below)