Eucharist: Sacrament of Reconciliation in a Melanesian Context Part II

Resources »Eapr »East Asian Pastoral Review 2007 »Volume 44 2007 Number 2 »Eucharist Sacrament Of Reconciliation In A Melanesian Context Part Ii

Rose Mary Harbinson, R.N.D.M.


Ritual Celebrations in a Melanesian Context

In my quest to name some of the tensions between traditional rituals of gift-exchange and the celebration of liturgies, namely, the Eucharist, I have been greatly encouraged by the work of Chauvet. He introduces his most recent work, The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, by stating that "theology is a believer’s task." He maintains that faith is not a rational act whereby a person believes or trusts "in" someone, rather, faith "is never a product of merely an intellectual reasoning…" He maintains that to believe in someone (a spouse, a friend, and so on) belongs to the relational rather than to the rational order; "desire" holds a decisive place in such a relationship (Chauvet 2001:ix).

Thus, Chauvet lays open the path for believers "in search of understanding" their faith through a process of "discourses" that will explore and engage the believers in a relationship with the One in whom they believe. If this is true of all believers, then surely we can go one step further in applying Chauvet’s assertion that, if "the sacraments are the ecclesial mediations of the exchange between humanity and God" (ibid., 123) then Melanesians, through their practice of symbolic gift-exchange and their rituals of celebration, are capable of entering into the discourse of "faith seeking understanding" (ibid., ix).

To fully appreciate the process of inculturation one does not simply assess one culture over another to evaluate their respective spiritualities. The process is a profound and all-embracing one. In a series of papal documents on inculturation, especially in Redemptoris Missio (RM), Pope John Paul II states that: "Through inculturation the Church makes the gospel incarnate in different cultures and at the same time introduces peoples, together with other cultures, into its own community. It transmits to them its own values, at the same time taking the good elements that already exist in them, and renewing them from within."1Consequently, it is necessary to look more closely at what constitutes ritual celebration for Melanesians. Also, one must be attentive to both language and symbolism used in their (Melanesian) tasks of observing festivals and sharing food. For could it be that these patterns of rituals are only a "shadow of what is to come" (Col 2:17) and that for them "faith is not at the end but at the beginning of this task"? (Chauvet 2001:ix).

My first introduction to a Melanesian celebration occurred shortly after I arrived in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. Everything about the feast seemed highly organized yet dramatic; the killing of many pigs, many features of colorful body decorations, the haunting chants, and the systematic sharing of seemingly greasy portions of pig-meat, amidst various kinds of taro, edible greens, and sweet potato. The whole event was the envy of any tourist’s dream of paradise, of adventure, and of an attempt to capture and experience the mystery of such an exotic culture. Certainly, it was easy for the untrained eye to notice the peripherals of the occasion, to be absorbed, charmed, and transported into some kind of unreal world of prehistoric proportions.

It has taken many years, since first experiencing those events, to look more closely with a trained eye and to be more attentive to the complexities that one event entailed. Over the years of ministry I have been engaged in hours of listening to the elders in the hope of trying to understand pasin bilong tumbuna(manner of behavior of ancestors), which is a term used in Melanesian Pidgin to describe an unfolding of ancient customs that constitutes ritualistic celebrations that go back beyond memory to their unnamed ancestors. Ritual and its meaning in any culture, which has often been considered a study only in the realm of the anthropologist, has now become an essential element in understanding, not only what determines ritual acts, but also how ritual patterns can give pastoral workers clues into how a people define what is strictly based on traditional ancient customs, cosmic worship, or that which is religious.

Before we even begin to attempt to uncover the hidden treasures of pasin bilong tumbuna, it is necessary to describe what is generally understood by ritual. One of many definitions is that of Gerald Arkbucke, who claims that "ritual is the means through which we search for, establish, and preserve or celebrate symbolic order and unity for ourselves and for society" (Arbuckle 1988:24). In other words, ritual is the medium by which people express how they organize their everyday life, which will determine their ancestral story, its purpose for existing, and all that the community values to carry forward for future generations. "Every ritual develops a pulse or rhythm which is part of the larger life rhythm of a people" (Worgul 1990:1101).

If one relates this understanding of ritual to Melanesian behavior, these patterns become a lens through which to see the dimensions at play in their social interaction. For example, the use of symbolic movements, mystical incantations, provocative, almost aggressive warlike chants, and complex exchange of gifts, all surround the dramatic experiences of birth, initiation, and death. It is important to note here that, as with most cultures, Melanesian ritual is an attempt to flesh out myths that hold the key to the values and purpose of life.

However, in my trying to understand Melanesian ritual it has become evident that there are constant tensions that need to be named. Often, we western Christians believe that there is only one way to value and interpret behavior, and as a result, we view any other forms as leaning towards religious abuse and even as anti-Christian. This conflict of attitudes between western and Melanesian behavior, I believe, contributes to the present unrest and dissatisfaction that is slowly eating into the social fabric of traditional village life. If, for centuries, Melanesians enjoyed a natural environment, in most areas, untouched or undisturbed by the outside world, there is now a constant threat of "strange storms" (Tawali 1978:14),as the poet Kumalau Tawali writes, wherein the familiar sounds of the forest, streams, and skies, are changing to another "heartbeat." What was once a harmonious exchange between the elders and ancestral spirits who communicated murmurings of ancient "magic formulas" in the tribal beat of thegaramnut and kundu drums, is slowly being lost. Those familiar sounds that were carried by the gentle breezes, up through the meandering rivers to the highest mountain ranges, resounding from village to village, have been changed to the sound of the sawmill and the hum of machinery. What were once channels of information and life-giving sources of relationship with the world, spirit heroes, and demadeities (lesser spirits), have certainly been changed forever. The point I wish to stress here is that what Melanesians once considered a common belief about life beyond the realms of present physical existence, has been lost and distorted by the intrusion of outsiders who brought with them new concepts of what is considered sacred and religious.2

If we are ever to understand and appreciate the worldview of Melanesians, it is necessary to realize that all life-giving relationships are made in relation to a world beyond human reach, whereby human existence is only "lent" (Namunu 1996:81) to any given tribe. This insight explains the intensity of rituals that surround birth, initiation, and death. Rev. Simeon Namamu would call these rituals "an inner death in order to emerge into a new stage of life" (ibid.). This may also explain the secrecy surrounding the process of initiation, which for a Melanesian is a symbol of inner change, a process of purification. This is where the spirit or mana (power)3 of the ancestors can enter into their lives and where they as humans can enter into the realm of the spirits. It is by keeping this cycle of relationships alive and active in the tribe or clan that the people experience a connectedness with their ancestors.

What is most interesting is that once the mana is possessed and experienced there must be a ritual exchange of gifts. These exchanges renew and revitalize good relations in the community. Thus, feasting is not just for social pleasure. It calls for extensive planning, which includes the raising of pigs, planting of taroand sweet potato. This is culminated in the ritual killing of pigs, cooking of the food, and sharing of the gifts. "In essence, (this feasting) is an experience of cosmic expression of people’s sense of worship" (Habel 1979:82), because all gifts are from another realm and sacred.

Of all the customs that have been lost from Melanesian culture, or simply those that remain hidden, ritual feasting still remains a vital system of gift-exchange, bonding relationships between the giver and the recipient. In times past, gifts were offered to the dema spirits, often placed in sacred places, sometimes hidden in caves, in the forests, or simply hanging from special trees that surrounded the village, as a form of compensation or appeasement to the ancestors.

Today, reciprocal exchange of gifts between tribes has, in most cases, replaced this practice of gifts to thedema spirits, because they see the importance of validating social relationships. Certainly, there can be an element of materialism and competitiveness in their bartering economic exchanges and often there is a conflict of values regarding the ‘buying’ arrangement or bride-price—baim meri, (which literally means "to buy a wife") between two tribes as being morally insensitive and totally against gospel values of respecting human rights.

However one feels about the custom of baim meri, in the light of this essay, I offer it as one of the many examples of adaptation that Melanesians have been forced to make towards a more sedentary life. In recent times tribes have had to adopt the practice of cultivating their own crops and domesticating animals as a result of the white man’s organization of villages and land ownership. Now Melanesians feel the need not only to maintain security but also to sustain a fair distribution of wealth. Males can only do this by a display of all that they possess and through gift-giving and reciprocal exchange through baimmeri. This symbolic ritual of exchange brings two communities together, and where there is community there is gutpela sindaun (harmony),4 where there is gutpela sindaun, there is life. Even if this seems to be a good model for unity and harmony, the overall system of wanting to possess, not only land, but wives, certainly needs to be challenged in the light of the gospel. If Melanesians truly believe that community is a web of relationships, not only with those who live, but relationships that are bonded with the ancestors, with other communities and with the environment, then they are already taking the first step of accepting the gospel challenge to "put away your former way of life, your old self…and be renewed in the spirits of your minds…" (Eph 4:22-23).

If we keep in mind what has already been discussed—that for Melanesians life is not understood to be possessed by any one person, and that this life is achieved through ritual celebration—would it not be possible to say that these rituals are fundamentally religious and are organized in such a way that preserves the dignity and sustenance of all that pertains to life? If so, all gift-exchange in Melanesian culture, whether of baim meri, pigs, food, shells, salt, or axes, can be seen as life-giving ritual actions. Consequently, anything that breaks this flow of life or disrupts relationships will result in alienation from the community and be understood as the cause of sickness "which is equivalent to the lessening of life leading to death" (Mantovani 1984:75).

In their attempt to regain relationships or to make peace, Melanesians have festive meals, one way in which Melanesian societies make "efforts to restore good relationships which are a precondition for healing" (ibid., 182). It is from this starting point that we must begin to look at all ritual which celebrates the "need for communion, for good and harmonious relationships with the living and the dead, and with the whole physical environment" (ibid.). But it is only in the light of the gospel that we can ask: is Melanesian festivity a "shadow of what is to come," waiting to be transformed into the body of Christ (1 Cor 13:10)?

What constitutes ritual celebration in Melanesia is active exchange of gifts. "Giving and receiving through ritual exchange will express repentance in a visible and accepted way. It will express communion, and re-establish good relationships for everyone to see" (ibid., 187). If we as pastoral workers fail to appreciate this, we will fail in our catechesis to actually attempt to portray Christ as the one and only source of life, who is present to this life-giving event through the Eucharist.

One area where I feel that the Church, in her missionary endeavor to understand culture has failed, is the misconception that the Eucharist would in some way substitute traditional Melanesian rituals and memorials. What we should be hoping for is that "In Christ… the fullness of divine worship has come to us."5

"In him a new world has been born …and everyone can become a new creature. In him, darkness has given place to light, promise became reality and all religious aspirations of humanity found their fulfillment" (ibid., no. 11).

What then would be a lived reality for Melanesian Christians today? Does Christian Eucharistic liturgy ritualize gift-exchange that not only bonds communities together but also heals those broken and disharmonious relationships? Chauvet takes a positive step in believing, that already the Eucharistic Prayer is a "symbolic exchange between humanity and God" (2001:129), that every sacramental celebration follows the same model of "reading the Scriptures as the living word of God attesting God’s gift in the past; sacramental gesture of reception of this gift in the present; rite of sending into mission indicating the ethics of responsibility which is incumbent on all in order to verify in their own daily lives what has just been celebrated and received" (2001:45). If this is what constitutes the Eucharistic process, then pastoral evangelization, with discernment and sensitivity, can enable the Christian [Melanesian] community to receive, celebrate, live and translate its faith into its own culture, in "compatibility with the Gospel and in communion with the universal Church" (RM, 54).6

In the following section of this paper I would like to undertake the challenge to outline and refer to the areas of catechesis that I believe have lacked pastoral care over the years. In particular, I would like to raise some questions around the area of Melanesian rituals that might be helpful in our discernment of what we might consider to be the more positive approach of catechesis. How best can we adapt a pastoral theology of Eucharist that would be both reassuring and challenging? I do not deny that there are serious theological problems in integrating traditional rituals and the Christian faith. However, I wish to present an unbiased observance of Melanesian rituals that I have seen in existence today. I do so because I believe that these rituals are an example of a Melanesian’s conscious attempt to keep communities together in the hope of discovering the source of gutpela sindaun. It is also my belief that it is the work of pastoral workers to find practical ways to enter into conversation with Melanesians who are caught between the desire to uphold traditional beliefs and yet be fully engaged in the Christian life.

Restoring Good Relationships: A Precondition for Healing and Eucharist

I began Part I of this study with a quotation that captured my imagination, not only because of its simplicity but because I truly believe this is how Melanesians can embrace the mystery of the Eucharist as having the power to transform lives, "indeed to transform the life of the world" (La Verdiere 1993:282). In his address to the French-English Round Table at the 45th International Eucharistic Congress in Seville (1993), Eugene LaVerdiere refers to the Eucharist as the "Sacrament of Transformation." In Melanesian culture, people are constantly ritualizing ways whereby they can bring about change, gutpela sindaun. They believe that this is the only way they can strengthen and perpetuate the fullness of life for the community.

Gutpela sindaun is by its very nature holistic, in that it implies fulfillment in every aspect of life, "be it health, success, fertility, respect, honor [sic] or influence over others" (Mantovani, 282). However, if anything should go against gutpela sindaun, for example, sickness, famine, death, tribal warfare, infertility, immediately the headmen and elders will look at the quality of life lived in the community. It is within the community that they find the ultimate cause of this disharmony with other communities, the world, and often among themselves. This then gives us some insight into how Melanesians want to protect themselves from anything that will endanger their community and relationships that affect the cosmic world. Ennio Mantovani, a missionary in Papua New Guinea, would say that gutpela sindaun is determined by the whole community. The community believes that it is the decisions made by the elder that "confirms and reiterates this concern to prevent a disintegration of relationships for it is the prime source of a deferred salvation" (1984:283).

If we are to seriously regard Redemptoris Missio, in particular, where it says to take the good elements from any culture that already exist and renew them from within, in relation to inculturation, then we can look at Melanesian ritual of generating relationships as a key to salvation. Melanesians are aware of all that makes good relationships and gutpela sindaun. It is this that makes them even more conscious of the signs that reflect what is harmful and which would result in the "collapse of all that is meaningful," subsequently, "leading to death and extinction" (ibid., 283). It would be correct to say that in most areas of Melanesia good relationships are the result of the conscious efforts made by the elders, the people and individuals working together, to initiate ways of strengthening bonds of kinship, status, trade, and establishing and upholding well-being within the community. Thus, if we wish to pursue the concept of salvation in Melanesia, it is necessary not only to see how relationships are first initiated, but how they are kept alive and restored.

In times past, rituals which initiated and maintained relationships would most certainly be held in secret. We see elements of secrecy in the taboos and in the behavior and numerous complexities that surround ritual ceremonies. Such rituals would include incantations and symbolic actions that they believe invoke relationships with their ancestors. In some cases, they act out the myths in their dance and secret songs to fulfill responsibilities of re-enacting and renewing relationships, which have long been handed down from one generation to another.

New Guinea!
my father sang to the kundu drum
my fathers danced to the garamnut
on the banks of your mighty rivers…
mumbling magic formulas (Enos 1971).

Such was the potency of the ritual, that only the revered and trustworthy could lead or mediate between the ancestors and the community to maintain good relationships. Those of us who have worked closely with Melanesian catechists will appreciate the meticulous and sometimes long-winded discussion that is entailed before any decision is made regarding the well being of the community. They carry traces of this responsibility and are regarded by the people as having distinct leadership.

One of the responsibilities entrusted to such leaders in the community is to maintain and to restoregutpela sindaun. As has been the custom in times past, Melanesians exchange goods as an integral part of their ritual. Hardly any words are spoken in the act of exchange. What is seen in the display of pigs, shells, sugar cane, and today, paper money carried on long poles, will reinforce the extent of payment. These payments may be in response to gestures of reconciliation, appeasement, trading, or simply for compensation. It is extremely rare in Melanesia for exchanges to be made in ples klia (place hidden)7without any obligation or reason. Therefore, what is acted out or symbolized in the ritual is very important and often is the key to interpreting what is going on between the community and the one whom they believe to be the source of their well-being and gutpela sindaun.

One significant feature is that nearly all rituals and ceremonies involve a visible expression of communion by the sharing and distribution of gifts, usually in the form of food. It might be helpful at this juncture to briefly look at one such ceremony which illustrates this principle of gift-exchange. Killing pigs in Melanesia is probably the most widely known ritual whereby gift-exchange is the means of restoring relationships. The process undergoes some serious and significant stages. Firstly, the headmen of villages and tribes where there have been external disputes or conflicts involving physical injury, theft or destruction of property, and in some cases, unusual or reoccurring sicknesses, consider the cause and subsequent remedy. Secondly, there are lengthy discussions with various headmen and elders of the two or more tribes involved in the dispute as to how best to restore relationships. This will be decided by the symbolic offering of sugar cane as the initial stage of the transaction. Thirdly, the headmen involve their respective communities either to prepare the gifts for exchange, or to prepare for the fair distribution of the gift received. If they are the giving community, the pigs must be well fattened and acceptable as exchange. Likewise, the recipients of the gift-exchange must inspect the gifts, usually both the quality and the quantity of the pigs on display, and if they are satisfied they will receive sugar cane, whereby the exchange is now established as a symbol of peace. In Pidgin this is called Moka, whereby the two parties benefit from the exchange.

Goods given -----> Goods received
and received <---- and given

Figure 1. A Melanesian Exchange Partnership


This exchange partnership (Whiteman, 109) is used not only as a free flow of goods, but also to create a state of material and moral reciprocity. The giver is no more considered a benefactor of goods than is the receiver considered a beneficiary. Both are receivers but in a unique way. This relationship far exceeds the material world. Through the ritual, the relationship extends to the ancestors, who are dependent on humans for their welfare. It is this aspect of gift-exchange that could be problematic and often leads to further dissension. If exchange is used as a "pay back"—a system used to even scores for a death or serious offence—it might be possible that the exchange is refused because it does not please the ancestors.

If one is aware of the complexities of gift-exchange, it is possible to ward off any serious abuse that has crept into modern Melanesian behavior as a result of the cargo cult mentality. This is where it was once thought possible to earn the whiteman’s powers and wealth through the exchange of traditional gifts of land and precious artifacts for medicine, axes, and knowledge of the secret source of life, called religion. Research throughout the country by various church groups would claim that this form of gift-exchange between the white man and religion has now turned sour. This is the subject discussed much more in detail by Darrell Whiteman in his book Melanesians and Missionaries.

The point I wish to emphasize is the fact that early missionaries portrayed Christ as entering into the culture by offering them a gift-exchange by taking all of their worries and debts. "Christ died for our pringopangwo (debts)" (Barry 1972:280-85), literally meaning "our liabilities." Little did missionaries realize then that the people became indebted to Christ not in an exchange partnership, but as unequal partners who had to find ways to repay the debt now incurred. Consequently, the new converts increased their church attendance and wok sol (community work)8 in earnest.

It is not surprising to see today many of the first converts to Christianity moving to other new religious groups, firstly because they no longer feel able to carry the burden of the debts, and secondly, they see other new sects or evangelical groups offering a better deal that does not demand a commitment. What they are doing, in fact, is taking back their liability. Many Melanesians who have gone to other religions would say that they still belong to the Catholic Church, but would only return to worship if they could really enter into an exchange partnership where every gift that is received not only obligates the recipient, but also is seen as a reciprocal action of returned gift.


Gift Return-gift

Figure 2. Process of Symbolic Exchange

In his description of the process of symbolic exchange (1995:267), Chauvet offers an understanding of exchange that, even though it seems contradictory, is the "central framework to his project towards a fundamental sacramental theology in the postmodern world" (Pilario 2001:80). To the Melanesian mind, those who give never lose but gain and those who receive not only gain but also enter into a relationship that automatically opens the channels for a returned response. It is precisely this anthropological concept of gift-exchange that Chauvet has applied to contemporary society. Symbolic exchange "as exemplified in the gift… provides Chauvet with a model with which to understand how subjects interrelate in the sphere of gratuitousness beyond the calculable ‘order of (economic or utilitarian) value’" (Pilario, 81).

In the empirical world, gift-exchange determines a certain mode of behavior. Gifts are measured by their economic or utilitarian value and even though given freely, gifts are sometimes constricting insofar as they can put the receiver under an obligation to either change their attitude towards the donor or to find ways of returning the gift. Whereas for Chauvet, gift-exchange does not have anything to do with commercial value, but it seems as "the relationship of alliance, friendship, affection, recognition, and gratitude it creates or recreates between partners. It is the subjects who exchange themselves through the object; they exchange, under the agency of the Other…and become deepened by their exchange" (Chauvet 2001:107).

It is my belief that this model reflects the underlining principle that authenticates exchange partnership in Melanesian culture. The exchange of food and symbols of reconciliation are not offered in an act of self-interest but this action opens the way for reciprocity that involves the whole community in a "mutual extension of relationship" (Gittins 1993:80).

Both the donor and the recipient are bonded by a mutual exchange that can only be seen as "gratuitousness beyond the calculable" (Pilario, 81). I believe it is from this premise that both Chauvet and Anthony Gittins9 would see this model of gift-exchange as the starting point by "taking the good elements that already exist in them (in Melanesian culture), and renewing them from within" (RM, 52.3). Reciprocity is basically what constitutes ritual celebrations. Gittins would go as far as to state that, "perhaps at this level, eucharist-as-communal-thanksgiving and reciprocity-as-hu-man-sociality are speaking much the same language" (Gittins, 80). He reminds us that the notion of "exchange" is not a new term, but is grounded in historical expressions used by the early fathers to refer to the relationship between the Church and the Blood of the Christ. The Eucharist as the key expression of this relationship was often referred to as admirabile commercium, sometimes translated as admirable (or happy) exchange.10

In the process of making a "comparative study between the Christian liturgical forms and the corresponding cultural elements… to discover points of convergence on which interaction between liturgy and culture can operate…" (Gittins, 80), it is important to look closely at what is a basic desire for all humans. Surely, this is communion, gutpela sindaun. This discovery always brings us back to what constitutes social life. Gittins would say that gift-exchange is not a "random arrangement between private individuals but a compelling social institution" (ibid., 82). If we accept gift-exchange as an extension of the self, this then would imply that God "must give" if there is to be any relationship. If there is no reciprocity, then there is no exchange if there is no exchange there is no communion, no gutpela sindaun.

How does this relate specifically to the Eucharist? In the light of all that has been discussed so far it is helpful to see how Chauvet helps us to shift from the old metaphysical understanding of causality in relation to the sacraments to a more focused approach to understanding sacraments as "mediations of grace within a symbolic order." Causality "results in an objectification of grace, which devalues the relationality of God and human in sacraments, and in a manipulation of language, which fixes on right thinking at the expense of symbolic thinking regarding the presence of God to the Church in Christ via the Spirit" (Fuchs 2001:1:60).

It would seem that this is at the heart of Paul’s caution to the Corinthians when they seem to be abusing the Lord’s Supper: "Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves" (1 Cor 11: 27-28). The result of such behavior is sickness and death. This would imply that Paul is emphasizing that the meal is not just for personal gain but also for the good of the whole community. If one is not ready to enter into the fullness of the meal and into all that it entails, then there is no relationship, no exchange. He is also implying that the whole community is strengthened in relationship with God, if there is a common belief shared among the group gathered. By partaking of the one bread, and of the one cup, the community becomes for each other the Body of Christ.

It was this that Jesus offered and gave to all of us in the Eucharist, a "perpetual alliance" (Gittins, 84). The invitation to "take and eat" is an invitation to be in an "intimate and real, though unequal, reciprocal relationship with God" (ibid.). When we take a closer look at the institution narrative, the bread and the cup are offered to the disciples to eat and drink, but this action is not only for them alone, because Jesus tells them: "Drink from it all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:28). They are the agents of transformation. The community has now found a way of recipro-cating the exchange, not by being subservient to Church services and its house-cleaning chores, but being active agents of change and promoters of good news and good works.

It would seem that there are possibilities for a "convergence of eucharistic inculturation and gift-exchange" and a re-examination of Western liturgies, allowing new communities "to discover the call to a covenantal relationship, with God and with each other" (ibid., 86). However, it is also important to remember that many traditional rituals are created to sustain the survival of ancient customs. In the case of Melanesians, it is the responsibility of the elders and the headmen to not only maintain relationships but also to restore the community to gutpela sindaun. Therefore, it is imperative that, in an attempt to inculturate liturgy, the Eucharist becomes available "as a normal part of the context" (ibid.) of the community. Gittins reminds us that over the years of the development of Eucharistic liturgy there have been many cultural changes (ibid., 87). However, some of these changes or transformations only touch the surface. As the structure changes meaning, it sometimes takes on a different emphasis, as from an exchange of gifts to sacrifice, from real presence to communal dining.

Despite centuries of development and change, the one aspect that has remained unchanged is the command "to do this in memory of me," which impels believers all over the world and across cultures to enter into relationship with Christ through the Christian ritual. History has taught us that there is no one way to celebrate or to reduce Eucharist to a "single form." "Rather than trying to standardize it, inculturation should show us where eucharistic variety can be both orthodox and imaginative, strong in root and strong in branch" (ibid., 90).

As much as I believe the above statements to be true, I feel that somehow, we have done a disservice to the people of Melanesia by not critically observing an already effective and potentially Christian system of symbolic exchange that is so much a part of their culture and everyday life. For years we have allowed them to kill pigs, barter for wives, and engage in many forms of gift-exchange without taking the time to learn from them the good and not-so-good elements of these particular practices. We have had the example of Paul in his warnings to the Corinthian community not to abuse the gift-exchange of the Lord’s Supper, and for those who were not worthy to share from the table to go home (1 Cor 11: 17-34).

It remains for us now, as pastoral workers, to make the connections between the real disposition that is similar between cultural gift-exchange and Eucharist. I began this chapter with a question: when a community works to restore relationships as a precondition for healing, is this Eucharist? Can we really say that Melanesians have a true disposition of wanting to be in relationship with each other and with the wider community in gift-exchange? Do they seek true healing and reconciliation? My response can only be positive in favor of the Melanesian community. Despite the many areas in Melanesian culture, already touched on briefly in this chapter, that still needs to be challenged, I believe there is room for a more inculturated attitude in the way we present Eucharist in our catechesis. Consequently, I appreciate the question Anthony Gittins poses as he concludes his chapter "Eucharist: Exchange and Transformation." "Whenever Christian communities gather with the intention of fulfilling Jesus’ command and doing likewise, what shall we call that?" (ibid.).

In the final section of my paper, I would like to look at some of the challenges relating to inculturation that I feel pastoral workers have failed to consider in their catechesis on the Eucharist in a Melanesian context. Mainly, I wish to show how Melanesians really try hard to restore relationships. However, often in their efforts to do so, it becomes evident where there are areas in their rituals that still need to be both critiqued and strengthened in such a way that they themselves will be able to make the adjustments that correspond to gospel values. It is only in the light of the gospel that their ancestral customs, which have been for centuries "shadows of what is to come," can be now transformed and renewed in Christ.

Transformation—Reconciliation, as Eucharist

For centuries, Melanesians have been following the same ritual patterns primarily to move through the "tripartite psychosocial phases" (Arbuckle, 22) of separation, liminality, and reaggregation. Any ritual process is a movement from one state to another and this becomes even more accentuated and easier to see in cultures where the ritual is acted out in physical and bodily gestures. As mentioned earlier, it is not possible in this paper to explore in depth the anthropological dimensions related to ritual. However, I advocate that all pastoral workers be aware of the contributions that anthropologists have made in unearthing such insights enabling us to approach ministry in a more informed manner.

For Melanesians, gutpela sindaun can only be achieved when the rituals they perform challenge not only the individual but also the whole community "to interiorize or appropriate the foundational meaning of the community" (Worgul 1990:1104). Anthropologists would call this appropriation "root metaphor" (ibid., 1980:184). This means that rituals are rooted in our experience. When rituals respond to people’s needs, they go beyond the frontiers of the visible and the rational (Arbuckle, 23). For Melanesians, they use ritual to express, often in unspoken gestures or actions, to set parameters of interpretation, group bonding, corporate coherence which enhances communitas (community), and finally, to challenge social correction (Worgul 1990:1105). Melanesians, in this way, interpret their lives in terms of their own identity. Ritual demands that each person involved takes an active part and not just "play act." Worgul states, "Ritual demands that role become autobiography" (ibid., 1104).

It is within this framework that I situate Eucharist as a sacrament of transformation. If the Eucharist "functions as an interpretative key for our life experiences because this sacramental encounter becomes paradigmatic for other encounters" (Wood 1994:39) then surely, Melanesians, who interpret their own identity through ritual, can as Christians interpret their lives in terms of their identity in Christ.

We have already established that the main purpose of Melanesian ritual is to seek transformation and this becomes clearer when we take the time to really observe some of the rituals that engage encounter and exchange. If we recall the ritual process of gift-exchange in the ceremonial pig-kill, we will see three distinct stages of the ritual: (1) the recognition by the headmen and elders that something within the community is breaking them apart (separation); (2) finding ways of restoring what causes separation and disharmony which will involve "fellow ritual participation" (Arbuckle, 22), (liminality); and finally, (3) the exchange of gifts which will enable relationships to be bonded in communitas, thus restored (reaggregation or incorporation).

As it is in all ritual, these three phases are an integral part of gift-exchange, and if there is a natural progression to each stage, then relationships will be restored and transformed within the community. Aidan Kavanagh speaks about liturgy as being transformative, "bringing us to the edge of chaos, to the brink of the abyss" (1992:73). When the Eucharistic community is brought face to face with the "living God" during the liturgy of the Word, and challenged by the preaching, there is an invitation to recognize one’s own common experiences, not just personally, as an invitation to conversion that is shared by all the assembly. In other words, transformation depends on the willingness of the community gathered to "call to mind" all that has brought disharmony, not only in their own lives, but also to the community. The individual is reminded by the prayers of the penitential rite that the whole community is coming before the Lord, and that all are equally as sinful both in their relationship to the community and to the wider world.

"Ritual is never individualistic or private" (Worgul 1990:1101). If ritual is performed to attain a goal, it must reflect the pulse of the community which it serves. Hence, over the years, the Church has reintroduced rites, symbols, and gestures, for example, the Sign of Peace, to emphasize that it is the community who is assembled at prayer. This discourages private devotion and isolation during the liturgy.

In the same way, Melanesians, before any large ceremony or gift-exchange, prepare themselves ritually, to represent the community. Conscious of the serious repercussions that may fall upon their tribe, if relationships are not restored, each man and woman works together. Everyone enters into the liminal stage of equal responsibility, even though the cause of disharmony in the community may be the fault of just one person. For example, if a man kills a stray pig that belongs to another tribe, the compensation or exchange for the dead pig is the responsibility of the whole community, even if the pig only destroyed his garden. Why? Because the garden destroyed by the pig ultimately produces the crops that everyone eats, or sells in the market.

There is an undefined system of ownership in Melanesia which defies any sense of individualism. However, what is considered shared property within the confines of the tribe is not the property of a fellow Melanesian from across the mountain or from another language group or tribe. Consequently, during the ceremonial pig-kill, all the community is involved in the exchange, in both the giving and in the receiving. If the three phases of the ritual are carried out, reconciliation, relationship, and bonding are achieved. Hence, "liminality yields to reaggregation" (Arbuckle, 22). Arbuckle would say that people cannot live in a liminal state for a long time and that people generally long for some order to the chaos.

In Melanesian ritual there are distinctive gestures which lead the community from the liminal state to reaggregation. After the pigs are placed on display during a pig-killing ceremony, the receiving tribe must inspect them and agree among themselves if the quality and quantity of pigs are sufficient to seal the exchange. It is rare that the pigs are rejected. After the inspection of the pigs, sugar cane is given to the receiving tribe as a symbol that the exchange is negotiable. If for any reason one person is not given sugar cane, that would indicate that they cannot be part of the gift-exchange. That person remains in the liminal state and inevitably this will affect the long-term gutpela sindaun of the community. If there is anything within the receiving tribe which is considered an impediment, such as an unpaid debt, or some unresolved dispute that goes back generations, then it is possible, in this case, never to sustain a full relationship with the host tribe. Even though this would be extremely rare, it gives us some insight into how rituals are a "powerful medium for expressing the deepest meanings and values which make people who they are" (Worgul, 1105).

We must always keep in mind that ritual calls a tribe to renew, reform, and correct its quality of life to maintain gutpela sindaun, and that any adaptation and transformation it may experience is necessary for its survival, and for maintaining the identity of the tribe. The result of anyone being refused sugar cane is considered a source of shame for the whole community and the tribe must live under the shadow of abikpela hevi (heavy burden),11 until it can find some other way to rausim (remove), get rid of, the shame. And so the circle of exchange continues. The shamed tribe, because they carry within their community something that is offensive to the host tribe, must be the ones to make a gift-exchange the next time round.

For Melanesians to be in a state of separation, or trapped in a liminal stage within their own community, can be devastating. This sense of shame is understood as the major cause of various forms of sickness, or failures of crops, that may be experienced within the community. In many cases the person held responsible for the shame experiences sickness. As a result, he or she finds himself or herself living on the periphery of the community, often afraid to work in the garden, or to work in the village. To be in a state of disharmony with oneself, with the community, and with the world, brings chaos and alienation. It is in this state of chaos that many Melanesians resort to magic and sorcery to appease the ancestors, and to protect the community and themselves from any further cause of disharmony.

As a pastoral worker, one can never take for granted that everything runs smoothly in the village. Also, it is important to take note that many who leave the villages and go to the towns are often those who carrybikpela hevi or consider themselves to be preventing gutpela sindaun in their home-place. Earning money in the city, or in the towns, could be for them a form of compensation, so that they could send money or valuable gifts back to the village. It is interesting to notice the sudden increase in the Sunday offering basket when Melanesians return from the towns. This overly generous offering, for many, is a form of gift-exchange, or can be seen as a gesture that seeks reconciliation and acceptance from the community.

What is more interesting to me about the above observation is that today, more and more Melanesians are turning towards the liturgy to make recompense. They see similarities between their own approach to communal reconciliation and the ecclesial dimension of the sacraments. James Dallen, in his article, "Eucharist and Penance," which gives an outline of the discussion of a Eucharist and Penance Study Group, makes the same comment. People in general agree that "through its gathered community, the Church is the agent and hence the forgiver" (Dallen 1976:324), with regard to the sacrament of reconciliation. They claim that the Church must see itself as a reconciling community.

"Closely related to the need to experience the Church as a reconciling community is the need for the realization of penance as a life process" (Dallen, 326). Here the study group speaks of the need to "deal ritually" with their inadequacies, and the need to have a "wider notion" of sacramentality. "Unless it is possible to be definite on what is sacrament and where sacrament is" (Dallen, 327), they see very little value in talking about sacraments. In short, "it is the Church which determines sacramental moments" (Dallen, 1976).

The reason I have labored this point is because I really believe that the Church, just like any village in Melanesia, must ritually take responsibility for fulfilling its pastoral ministry to its members. To illustrate this, it might be helpful to show how the ecclesial community of Williame Parish, located in a remote area of the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea, really became the "agents" of forgiveness.

Some years ago, a young man living in my village came to the sisters’ house to ask for some medical assistance. For some time I had noticed the same man sitting at the back of the church each Sunday. He was conspicuous by his torn clothes and unkempt appearance. It was obvious that he was isolating himself from the community. Immediately thinking that he had a serious illness, I arranged for him to travel to the town for a medical checkup. The reports from the hospital were all negative, stating that he was in good physical health.

After some months of watching this young man isolate himself even more, to the point of neglecting his garden and family, I decided to ask the local catechist about him. With reticence, the catechist told me that some years before, one of my own community members had unconsciously given him shame in front of many of the villagers. Consequently, he was holding me and the other sisters responsible for his bikpelahevi. That would explain why he allowed me to give him charity to help his family, to pay for school fees, and to pay for his trip to the hospital. It was clear to me now that my community must take responsibility to free this man’s shame and to enable him to experience gutpela sindaun.

Because of the deep impact this seemingly harmless remark had made on this man many years before, it was important to find a suitable ritual that would express our apology. With the help of the catechist and the villagers, we recalled the former parish priest back to the village. And on behalf of my religious community, in the presence of the villagers, we offered a gift-exchange. It was the villagers themselves who suggested that the ritual be incorporated into the Eucharist Liturgy. For many years, this young man had felt that he was no longer worthy of communion.

After the community had gathered for the opening prayer of the Sunday Liturgy, the presider paused at the Penitential Rite and guided us through a very simple ritual of exchange. Sugar cane was brought before the community and everyone present accepted it, including the young man. I knew that our exchange was acceptable. A young piglet and food were then presented on behalf of our sisters and they were taken to the village.

No matter how many times I could have apologized to the young man in Western terms, or how much I showered him with gifts in private, to spare him and our sisters more shame, nothing would be more efficacious than the public witness. It had to be put in ples klia (expose) that he was the one who had been shamed, and that he was innocent of any offense. The one who had inflicted his pain would be the only one who could free him from this bikpela hevi. The community must also accept this act of reconciliation, and welcome him back into the community from which he had isolated himself for many years. As well as being able to sit again in the hausman (meeting place for men), the traditional men’s house, and to eat in the village, he is now welcome at the Eucharistic table. Even though sin and guilt may be the result of independent acts of individual people, they both have communal consequences.

Is it possible that Dallen’s discussion group have it right when they see the Eucharist as "sacramentalizing ritually the process of ongoing conversion…"? (Dallen, 327). If Eucharist is to be transformative, it must be at the heart of "Christian mysticism…a real communion with God through the materiality of bread and wine shared together" (Leech 1985:288). This is one of those "ecclesial realities" where the Church determines "sacramental moments" (Dallen, 327).

The second Eucharistic Prayer echoes the heart of the mystery of transformation through Jesus Christ.

"Father, it is our duty and our salvation,
always and everywhere to give you thanks
through your beloved Son, Jesus Christ.
He is the Word through whom you made the universe,
the Savior you sent to redeem us.
By the power of the Holy Spirit
he took flesh and was born of the Virgin Mary.
For our sake he opened his arms on the cross;
he put an end to death
and revealed the resurrection.
In this he fulfilled your will
and won for you a holy people…"

Here is the ultimate gift-exchange. It is our duty and our salvation…to give you thanks. The community is the operating subject and the object we offer to God, is our thanks. The One sent to redeem us, who took flesh, opened his arms on the cross, put an end to death (sin) and revealed the resurrection gives and receives. So it is only right that we join with the angels, saints, and our ancestors to proclaim God’s glory and to truly believe that the body, which is "his flesh for the life of the world" (John 6: 51), and the blood that we drink, have been shed "for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven."

To be able to eat from the one pot on the fire in the village is the sure sign of fellowship and communitas. If only we could apply the same simplicity to our Eucharistic liturgies. The theology is there, the intentions are sound, yet somehow, we still struggle, nearly 40 years after the Second Vatican Council and its recommendation to "make more responsive to the requirements of our times those Church observances which are open to adaptation…" (SC, 1), and, to take into consideration the need for ritual which is such an integral part of Melanesian culture.

The Melanesian community is teaching us the "good elements that already exist" (RM, 13) that is ready to be adapted and renewed. Yet, the frustrations continue. Anthony Gittins puts it very succinctly when he writes:

Given the attitudinal approach referred to as mission in reverse, it would be relatively simple: we would gather people around a common table as a means of bringing theology in line with faith; we would ensure the welcome of all who hunger for the bread of life, leaving judgment to God…we would assert that any community responsible enough to be baptized is ipso facto a eucharistic community and thus has the right to eucharist; and we would produce a liturgy that would allow all this to happen (Gittins, 74).

Despite efforts made by many pastoral workers to introduce cultural rituals into liturgical worship that are appropriate and affirmed by the Episcopal Conference,12 we await the day when the legislation and the vigilance "on the part of those who have received this responsibility in the Church: the Apostolic See," will truly appreciate the need for a lived inculturation (ibid.).

"All Christians come as sinners seeking forgiveness in the eucharist" (Quinn 1968:29). Reconciliation is not just found in the words of absolution or in the penitential rite, but in the Word proclaimed, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Lord’s Prayer, and at the Table. All of these are gestures of welcome, of communitas that lead us from separation and liminality to a people transformed and renewed. Quinn likens Eucharist to the father welcoming and celebrating the return of the lost son to the meal of reconciliation. What rejoicing there will be throughout the world when the Church will proclaim these words: Son, (Church of the West) you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours (people of different color, creed, and culture) was dead (being in the shadow awaiting what is to come) and has come to life; he was lost and has been found" (Luke 15: 31).

Conclusion: The Way Forward

In the light of all that we now know about Melanesian culture we can seriously begin to look at what identifies a Melanesian Christian today. What does Eucharist mean to a society where reconciliation, communion, and thanksgiving, can only be expressed in cultural terms of rituals of exchange, in and through community, by actions not words? How can Melanesians be reconciled according to Christian values without being fully engaged in rituals of compensation and gift–exchange, which for them, may take years to fully become legitimized or acceptable by Western terms? Does the Christian tradition and today’s catechesis allow or discredit "the Melanesian way of expressing inner attitudes through visible, tangible signs? Christianity can only ask: are they signs of trust and service?" (ibid., 28).

The good news is that the days of implanting the gospel and the Church in Melanesia are over. We are in the era of local church, and if the community is to know its source and summit in the sacramental life of the Church, its source must not just be "bread given to the hungry" but sharing the bread of life that does not stifle local initiatives. The Eucharist, the heart of the Christian life, "has the power to transform," and its act of celebration is one of "divine hospitality" (Hellwig 1992:83). It is therefore our duty as pastoral workers to find ways that do not exclude people from God’s hospitality and to keep people in communion with each other, particularly in a society like Melanesia, where to share one cup, one bread, at one table needs it own catechesis "which is open to adaptation…nurturing whatever can contribute to the unity of all who believe in Christ…" (SC, 1). We need to learn to be attentive to the whispers of the ancestors, still carried by the gentle breeze, and to learn from their wisdom:

The whispers of your inspiration
have, like the refreshing voice of thunder after the dry season,
brought rain to the buried seeds of force
which now blossoms mightily,
and shall herald the hidden strength and colour
of those unseen and unheard
chants and charms,
those life-giving proverbs,
those drum rhythms,
those haunting songs
and those other unwritten,
shall now stand on two feet,
and carry the mystery of a nation.
Kumalau Tawali, Tribesman’s Heartbeat



1. The Encyclicals of John Paul II. Ed. J. Michael Miller, "Redemptoris Missio" (1990): 52:3 (Hungtingdon, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 1996), 538.

2. The importance of cosmic relationship is covered extensively in a study by Rev. Simeon Namunu, a former Bishop of the United Church. See "Christian Worship and Melanesian Vision of the Cosmos,"Catalyst. Social Pastoral Journal for Melanesia 26, no. 2 (1996): 81.

3. Mana – a Melanesian term to describe impersonal power, super-natural energy located in persons, places, or objects which make them powerful, charged, sacred, and important. See Habel 1979.

4. Gutpela sindaun: Melanesian Pidgin term to mean any conduct or way of life that is in harmony. A manner of well-being that brings life to oneself or to others.

5. Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation: Fourth Instruction for the Right Application of the Conciliar Constitution of the Liturgy no 2. (nn.37-40) Rome 1994. (USA: St Paul Books and Media).

6. Pontifical Council for Culture 1999:no 6.

7. Ples klia is a term used to distinguish between anything that has a hidden meaning to that which is clear. Often in Melanesia there is strong element of the discussion that is tok hait, meaning that there is often a hidden meaning or some agenda that is never brought to the table.

8. Wok sol is a term used commonly in the Catholic and Lutheran Churches to describe work and services rendered by the community for the upkeep of the grounds and church buildings. It literally means ‘work for the soul.’

9. See chapter entitled "Eucharistic Exchange and Transformation" in Bread for the Journey.

10. Gittins, 81. This phrase is often attributed to Gregory Nazianzen.

11. Bikpela hevi is a term that describes a heavy burden that is being carried or felt within the community.

12. A recommendation from The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation (1994) no. 27.


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