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From Oxford to PNG

Missionary work: Bishop Bill Fey of Papua New Guinea’s Kimbe diocese.

Missionary work: Bishop Bill Fey of Papua New Guinea’s Kimbe diocese.

By Paul Dobbyn

STEPPING over a pig about to be slaughtered while accompanying the relic of a potential saint may seem a somewhat unusual piece of Church business.

But for Bishop of Papua New Guinea’s Kimbe province Capuchin Bill Fey such events are not especially unusual.

“On that instance, I was part of a procession carrying a relic of Blessed Peter To Rot, martyred by the Japanese during World War Two for opposing their planned legalisation of polygamy,” he said.

“We were carrying the relic throughout parishes in my diocese which is on the western side of the island of New Britain.

“The occasion was the one hundredth anniversary of his birth.

“The tradition in the villages is that important people have to step over a pig which is then speared to death to make a welcoming banquet for the guest.

“So the relic of Blessed Peter was lifted over the waiting pig.”

Bishop Fey wanted to diffuse any tendency to superstition that the arrival of the saint’s relic might create.

“So I would joke that this guy’s a hundred years old but can still jump over pigs,” he said with his typical quiet chuckle.

 The soft-spoken American from Pennsylvania was recently in Brisbane enroute back to his diocese having attended the Federation of Catholic Bishops Conferences of Oceania in New Zealand.

As in a talk he gave to Wynnum’s Guardian Angels parish a couple of years ago, Bishop Fey was championing the cause of his faith-filled but needy diocese.

His was a story of a fascination with PNG since a high school student listening to Capuchin missionary stories in Western Pennsylvania.

It was of studying philosophy and, remarkably, Pidgin at Oxford University.

The story was about being placed in charge of a diocese, which is physically falling apart.

Where many priests’ buildings are without running water, and worshippers in one church require umbrellas when the island’s ever present rain falls through large holes in the rusting roof.

It was also about the generosity of people throughout Brisbane archdiocese and beyond, under the leadership of the Knights of the Southern Cross Queensland branch, contributing shipping containers of household items to furnish a new bishop’s house and also a catechist’s training school.

The story had another Queensland connection. The late Townsville Bishop Michael Putney’s fervour for ecumenism on a visit to PNG encouraged what Bishop Fey said was the world’s first ever covenant between a Catholic Bishops Conference and an Anglican Province.

Signed in 2003 between the PNG and Solomon Islands Catholic Bishops Conference and the Anglican Province of PNG, the two bodies agreed to work together towards visible unity.

Talking to Bishop Fey at Lindum, where he had been staying with Knights of the Southern Cross member Peter Jefferies and his family, it seemed his eventual mission to PNG had always been inevitable.

The Capuchin mission there had started relatively recently following a 1955 Holy See request to the congregation to bring the Catholic faith to PNG’s Southern Highlands.

“Growing up in Pennsylvania, I first started to hear about PNG from dad,” he said.

“His cousin was a Capuchin there.

“Then when I was in high school in the 60s, one of the Capuchins working in PNG would visit with slides and stories.

“It certainly sparked my interest. I’d think to myself: “My goodness doesn’t that look exciting.”

Studies for the priesthood followed.

“Shortly after my ordination in 1969 my superior said someone was needed to teach philosophy,” he said.

“So soon I was on my way to do my Masters at the Catholic University of America in Washington.

“I was at (the University of) Oxford from 1970 to 74 where I worked on a thesis which became the book Faith and Doubt: The Unfolding of Newman’s Thought on Certainty.”

Following his return to the US, in Capuchin centres in Pennsylvania then Cleveland Ohio, Fr Fey immersed himself in what would become his two great loves – formation and teaching.

Yet over those 13 years, the fascination with PNG persisted, “the fire kept alive” by an ongoing connection with one of his former fellow seminarians who had left for PNG soon after his ordination.

1986 turned out to be a watershed year.

A sabbatical was planned which included a term at Oxford.

Soon after the year started, he received two crucial phone calls.

The first was a “tap on the shoulder” from his superior to head to PNG on mission.

“Meanwhile I’d providentially found someone expert in Pidgin at Oxford of all places … who would have thought it,” he said.

“So as I was preparing for my mission in PNG, I was learning a language which would help me communicate with my people there.”

Soon after the first phone call came another saying that his father had suffered a severe stroke.

“My superior felt I should delay going to PNG and take care of my father,” Bishop Fey said.

“But dad said “Don’t wait for me to die. You go to PNG.

“I’ll never forget leaving my father at the airport.

“He was in his wheelchair waving to me. I knew I’d probably never see him alive again.”

The Capuchin friar’s instincts were right. Two years later, he returned from PNG to the US to bury his beloved father.

His first assignment was at the Capuchin novitiate in Pangia, giving a good chance to get to know something of the people and place before heading to Port Moresby to teach philosophy and running a formation program.

For six years, he was dean of studies at the then Holy Spirit Seminary which eventually became the Catholic Theological Institute.

At the same time, he was running the Capuchin formation house.

He’d eventually also become vice-provincial of the PNG Capuchins.

Then, just as his three-year term in that role was coming to an end, he got another tap on the shoulder – a big one.

“The Nuncio called to say the Pope wanted me to be the Bishop of Kimbe the western diocese of New Britain, an island to mainland PNG’s east,” he said.

“Kimbe had been without a bishop for about three years so I knew there’d be challenges but also opportunities.”

Now in his fourth year as Kimbe diocese’s spiritual leader, responsible for 26 priests over 19 parishes, Bishop Fey has a much clearer idea of the situation.

“One major problem is the condition of the buildings,” he said.

“German missionaries built the place in the 1930s and there’s been no real maintenance since.

 “It feels like visiting a missionary museum … everything is collapsing.

“We need someone with construction knowledge to say what we can renovate and what needs to be completely demolished and started again.

“Teachers too are needed. Perhaps there are some retired ones in Australia who can help.”

Bishop Fey also acknowledged a certain loneliness.

“I’ve lived in fraternity most of life; as the only expat here I have been praying for fellow religious to join me,” he said.

His prayers may soon be answered.

It seems likely that two diocesan Polish priests may be joining him and an African order, the Apostles of Jesus, are sending two priests as well.

However, the strength of the faith of the people cannot be denied.

“This is shown in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life from this diocese,” he said.

“At present there are 10 Kimbe seminarians studying philosophy and 14 studying theology in various interdiocesan seminaries in PNG.

“There are three deacons in the diocese preparing for priesthood ordination.

“The diocese’s promise is enormous, and with God’s help, and that of Catholics in places such as Australia, I will continue to bring this promise to fruition.”

Anyone wishing to help can contact Bishop Fey at billfeykimbe@gmail.com.

Written by: Paul Dobbyn

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