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Set out into the deep


Archbishop Francesco Panfilo sdb reflects on his years in Papua New Guinea.

A transcript of his Good Night to the Salesian Family on 24th February 2021 at Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. He departed from Port Moresby on 28th February 2021.

In 1984 the General Chapter was held, and the constitutions and regulations were approved. Fr. Lazaro Revilla requested me to give the retreat to the confreres. PNG was part of the Philippine province. In January 1985, I came to PNG to give the retreat to the confreres here. It was my first visit to PNG. I became the Provincial in 1987 and then would visit PNG twice a year. During my first visit as Provincial in 1987 I had to negotiate with Archbishop Albert Bundervoet, MSC, to find a suitable place for the future presence of the Salesians in the Archdiocese of Rabaul. Originally, the place was supposed to be Vunakanau and Fr Oscar Zamora already bulldozed all around the property assigned to us but there was no water so I told Archbishop Albert: “If there is no water we cannot start a school”. Later they found water and gave us the land of Vunabosco. At that time we already had the two presences of Araimiri and Don Bosco Gabutu.

In 1997 I was appointed as the provincial delegate for PNG. I went into a bit of a crisis when I was asked to come to PNG, not because I didn’t want to come to PNG, I knew PNG. I had always believed that the Lord had given me a missionary vocation, nevertheless I told Fr. Capelli who was the provincial: “If you transplant a mango tree that is thirty-two years old, you are in the risk of losing the fruits!” Because I was thirty-two years in the Philippines and anyway, I said, “oh okay if you insist.” I came to PNG in 1997.

I arrived in PNG on the feast of Saint Dominic Savio May 6th 1997. On the Feast of Mary Help of Christians, I was invited to concelebrate with Fr Capelli at the mass of Mary Help of Christians at Gabutu. After communion as we sat down, the congregation sang, ‘The Galilee song’. It was the first time I heard the Galilee song, and I followed the lyrics. It said, “so I leave my boats behind; leave them on familiar shores; set my heart upon the deep; follow you again my Lord.” Reflecting on the song, I thought that the Lord was talking to me and saying: “Leave your boats in the Philippines. Leave them, now you are in Papua New Guinea.”

The Lord speaks to us in very concrete ways. Permit me to share an experience. I was concluding the second term as Rector of Don Bosco Mandaluyong. I had been the Rector for six years and was also a member of the provincial council. Fr. Lazaro Revilla told me: “Now you go out because we have to discuss about Mandaluyong.” So, I went to the Shrine and I sat down in the shrine and there I saw the response of the responsorial psalm of the mass of that day: “Here I am Lord, I come to do your will.” When they called me, Fr. Lazaro said, “Are you ready to receive your obedience?” I said, “Look, I was in the shrine and the responsorial psalm said, ‘Here I am Lord I come to do your will.’ And I was appointed a third term in Mandaluyong. As I said, I have experienced the Lord speaking in very concrete ways.

After my experience on May 24 in Gabutu, I became peaceful. Sadly, a month later my mother died. I was very serene and peaceful, and I tried to do my job here. Fr Valeriano Barbero and myself worked together to build the school. In 2001, Fr. Gustilo, the provincial came for the visitation. On the day he had to leave for Manila, we had a slight argument; I don’t recall the reason why.

That evening, Fr. Val and myself were invited together with the Nuncio and his secretary for a dinner to the Honorary Consul of Italy. At about 4:30 the Nuncio called me and said, “Can you come and see me at 5 o’clock? While Fr. Val talks with the secretary and I’ll talk to you and then at 6 o’clock we will go for dinner.”

So, we went there, and the nuncio asked me “So how are things?” I said, “Oh, well not so good, something happened with the Provincial.” And then he told me, “This is not your problem anymore” and he added: “the Holy Father has appointed you as Bishop of Alotau”. Of course, I told him “You better give me some time to think.” But I remember him saying, “You are a Salesian, you have to obey the Pope.”

During those days, our post novices were staying here, and I was explaining to them one of the most beautiful historic documents of John Paul ll (Novo Millennio Ineunte). You know that in the year 2000 we celebrated the Extraordinary Jubilee of Redemption. At the end of that Jubilee many bishops were happy that the jubilee was over because they were tired. And here comes the Holy Father, who says: “This is not the time to sit down; instead, it is the time to set out into the deep, ‘Duc in altum’”. And so, I decided to take as the motto of my episcopate those words: “Duc in altum”

I didn’t know anything about Alotau and Milne Bay Province. I didn’t know that there were so many islands. Later I realized that my motto was very appropriate: ‘setting out into the deep’. In fact, I had to set out into the deep because Milne Bay Province is 240,000 square kilometers. The diocese is the biggest diocese in PNG. 240,000 square kilometers of water and there are only islands. I was able to visit all the parishes, some even twice a year.

You travel to Misima and Trobriand Islands by plane, but you travel to the rest of the islands by sea. Once Br Jess asked me: “Is it easier to be a provincial or a bishop?” “It’s easier to be a bishop,” I said. “I had to become a Bishop in order to be the missionary I dreamt off when I was a young seminarian. Going to isolated places, meeting people has been a very wonderful experience for me.”

As always, there were challenges, but I was quite happy in Alotau. In 2010, during the month of January the Nuncio with his secretary, Fr. Colnago, from my own diocese, came to Trobriand Islands and they stayed there for a week. At that time, I knew that that there were talks of a possible change for me. I remember one day at the table after the meal, the Nuncio made a few comments. I felt it was a bit of a reproach and so I said: “Why are you planning to change me when I could stay here and do something good. I have seen so many beautiful changes in the Trobriand Islands.” We then had a small argument. Then Nuncio replied: “Anyway, the whole thing is in Rome, it’s up to them now to decide.”

The Nuncio, his secretary and Fr. Val were scheduled to go back to Port Moresby on a Sunday. The plane was supposed to come from Port Moresby to Lusuia, then from Lusuia to Alotau and then from Alotau to Port Moresby. I would have disembarked at Alotau while the others would continue on to Port Moresby. Instead, the plane arrived late, and they decided that the plane would go straight to Moresby. They told me; “Tomorrow Monday we will fly you back to Alotau.” That day was January 24, 2010, the feast of St. Francis de Sales. In the evening I joined the community at Benediction. Towards the end of the benediction, I saw Father Colnago, the secretary of the nuncio, coming into the chapel and when we finished the benediction, he gave me a letter and he said: “Here is the answer to your quarrel with the nuncio.” The letter told me that the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI appointed me as Coadjutor Archbishop of Rabaul. So that night I wrote a note to Pope Benedict XVI saying, you know; “The prophet Jeremiah says I am too young, I do not know how to speak (Jer 1:6-7).” For me I told the pope; I am too old, I am already 68 years old and I don’t know how to speak pidgin.” The Nuncio was not very happy because I believe he wanted to announce my appointment on the feast of St. John Bosco.

I wrote to the pope. As I was travelling from Normanby Island to Sideia I was met by the parish priest who told me; “You know, the Nuncio has been calling you.” I knew what the Nuncio wanted to tell me, that the Holy Father wanted me to obey and to go to Rabaul. In the Church we are told; “when you become a bishop, it’s like you marry the diocese and the diocese becomes your wife and now the pope is asking me to divorce my wife.” And it was at this point of time that the Galilee song came back. I had three boats. I had to leave my boats behind and go to Rabaul. This was another lesson I learned.

Many times, the Lord made his will known to me through certain passages of Scripture. When I was about to be ordained as a priest, we were five Italians, Fr. Ferrari came to Turin to give us the obedience, we were still to be ordained priests, but he came to give us the new assignment and jokingly I told Fr. Ferrari; “Can we dialogue?” Fr. Ferrari was not too much of a man of dialogue and he said; “What is that?”

The next day, I was the first one to go to his room. Fr. Ferrari asked me: “Where would you like to go?” So, I told him, If I could choose, I said; “To Tondo or to Canlubang” because I had my practical training at Canlubang. And then he said; “Well, the superiors have decided” When I heard Fr. Ferrari saying that, I knew that he had decided. And he said; “The superior had decided that you go to Makati, Don Bosco in Makati”. He saw my reaction and then he said; “How come you don’t want to go there?” I said: ‘It is your fault because when you were our Rector and we were about to finish our study of philosophy, you said: ‘If the superiors ask you to go to Makati, refuse; because Makati is the house of the Devil.’ Mataki was the house of the Devil because Don Bosco Makati was the first school to accept female teachers. So, I told him; ‘you told us not to accept it!’ Then he said; “Oh but that has now changed. Obey!” And then I went out of the room and my classmates were outside waiting. They asked me what had happened because they saw that I was not very happy. Then I went to my room and I prayed the midday prayer. The short reading of the midday prayer said: “Because my ways are not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts.” I had my thoughts, and I had my plans but the Lord had his own.

And so, I went to Rabaul and I spent 10 years, some of it was very challenging. I have visited all the communities and villages. I never wanted to have confirmation in the main parishes where you gather hundreds and hundreds of candidates, instead I wanted to go to the different communities where all the people could be present for this important Sacrament of Initiation.

I enjoyed every moment of it, and I was happy and so the time has come for me to retire and to leave. Yes, some Bishops have asked me to stay around and perhaps help out in the seminary and do something for the religious of PNG, but I feel that it’s better for me to go and let my successor have complete freedom to move and do as he wishes.

So, I’d like to thank you for these three months that I have been here. I am now going to the Philippines for some time and then I’ll go to Italy. After that I’m hoping to go back to the Philippines and I hope that we might see each other there, I don’t know. Anyway, I tried my best to do what the Lord wanted me to do, and I would like to encourage you to do God’s will. As I said, the Lord speaks to us in very concrete ways. And as I said, if you will obey you will always be happy. I’m always reminded of the words of St Maximilian Kolbe. He would say that it’s only obedience that can really give us the assurance of what God wants us to do.