Lost In Paradise
By Father Nilo R Resco MSP
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Solomon Islands were used as a source of slave laborers to work in the sugar plantations of Fiji and Australia. The archipelago became independent in July 1978. Two years ago Father Nilo was assigned to these beautiful islands. He tells us below about his missionary adventures.
I glance at the wall clock and it’s already 11pm but I don’t feel like sleeping. I open my window, trying to get some fresh air and smell the newly mown grass gleaming in the moonlight. The deep calm of the mission station is disturbed by the occasional howling of wild dogs in the nearby bush and the incessant chirping of crickets. In a few moments a great calm settles over everything. All feels silent. I feel silent within myself too. This setting, surrounded by nature and stillness, has something extraordinary about it. I rise from my rickety bed, go to my writing table where scribbled notes that have been lying unnoticed for days catch my attention, my reflections, written during my first four months in the station. I’m tempted to read them again.
All roads led me to the Solomons
I ask myself what motivated me to be posted to the Solomon Islands. These South Pacific islands had appealed to my imagination during my childhood years: adventures, buccaneers, hidden treasures, unimaginably beautiful nature, legendary people, a tropical paradise, and the famous Battle of Guadalcanal.
A multiplicity of factors influences decisions. Was it the result of my reading novels and watching movies such as Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson and Castaway, to name a few that were full of adventure? Or was it my being a hopeless romantic who dreamed of being the lead character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Broadway musical South Pacific? Or was it the pocket volumes of lives of the saints that told of holy youths who died for Christ rather than sin?
Maybe the answer is all of the above. These amazing stories about the South Pacific and lives of the saints led to my ambition to serve in the Solomon Islands as a missionary. To carry out this dream I needed qualifications, so I wanted to be a lay missionary. Instead, I became a missionary priest – another long story.
On September 11, 2001, the day before my birthday, I traveled to the Solomon Islands, barely ten months in the priestly ministry, with no more training or preparation for missionary life than a few units in missiology, seven months of living with the B’laans and Tagakaolos in the hinterlands of Davao del Sur during my pastoral regency, and some survival tips from my boy scout days. However, when I landed on both feet in today’s reality, I discovered a different Solomon Islands. Ethnic tension between the Malaitans and Guadalcanals had just ended but peace and order hadn’t been fully restored. Vandalism and rampant stealing were enough to create insecurity and anxiety in me.
Traditionally, missionaries had lived in a community of at least two. Due to unavoidable circumstances, my companion had to go back to the Philippines barely three weeks after I arrived. Because of a shortage of priests, I had no option but to live alone.
My first attack of malaria less than a month in the mission slowly opened my eyes to the realities of living alone. There was no one to care for me during the malaria attack. I was a victim of break-ins and the thought of being the only expatriate priest left in the island added to my insecurities, leading to sleepless nights. Once I had thought of giving up, but a force deep inside me made me hang on. After spending days in prayer and discernment I made a final decision. I simply uttered, ‘OK, Lord, your will be done.’
With no experience in running a parish, I willingly took the responsibility of looking after the mission station. I just laughed at the thought that in the Philippines a priest is not a parish priest until he gains experience and learns the ins and outs of running a parish. But here I’m given a mission station barely a year as a priest. A problem I soon encountered was the lack of direct contact with my bishop. The office of the bishop is the main link with the world outside the mission station. Every parish has a two-way radio. Every movement of personnel, boats, freight , news and messages is discussed over the open radio. There’s no privacy in this form of communication and so we priests had little opportunity to share our concerns with the bishop. All of this meant that I had to reflect and be careful in my decisions.
A second problem and constant worry for me was the need for funds to maintain the mission station and support our projects. Our bishop would always remind us to be prudent in handling the mission budget and property because of financial constraints. But I am thankful that no matter how meager our budget was we were able to make ends meet.
My life in the mission is not always filled with worries and frustrations. One of my consolations is seeing my parishioners slowly maturing in their Christian faith. Secondly, every time the congregation would sing, the more inspired I was in celebrating the Holy Eucharist. Their singing was overpowering, their natural, untrained voices singing prayer to God in their native tongue, moving melodies rising like ‘incense that soars to the sky.’ It was a strange feeling being unable to join in the hymns at Mass.
I still get a thrill from traveling by dinghy, whether inside the lagoon or in the open sea, mesmerized by frolicking dolphins and sea cows in shimmering, turquoise water. Pristine underwater gardens of coral reefs offer a profusion of marine life that is a panacea to my weary soul. I’m also amused every time the local children call me ‘Patere Jet Lee’ – ‘patere’ being the Solomon pidgin for ‘father’ – after seeing a Jet Lee movie on a battery-operated video. Sometimes I can’t help but laugh at little children afraid of me because I’m a Wako, the local term for Chinese, or an Irikwao, ‘white man.’ After all, nobody ever called me ‘Jet Lee’ or Chinese or white, even by mistake, in the Philippines.
All that I am
How has my experience here evangelized me? Stripped of all the necessities of the modern way of life, I was often faced with the fact that only prayer could bring about change. There were many hours of contemplation while living alone, in the hours when the whole mission slept while I couldn’t. The pace of life is slow compared to that at home. I would gaze into the tropical night with fireflies as my neon lights, the gentle caressing sound of the waves in the atolls as my music, and wonder at the glorious creation rather than idealize the latest technology of man.
For the second time I asked myself why I was here in this land. Was it the call of the Holy Spirit? Was it the need for adventure in seeking to make my life more worthwhile? Perhaps the letter of St Paul to the Philippians (1:21-24) reflected my belief at this time:
For me to live is Christ, and yet to die is gain. But if I am to go on living, I shall be able to enjoy fruitful labor. Which shall I choose? I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. I desire greatly to leave this life and to be with Christ, which will be better by far. But it is necessary for you that I remain in this life.
This message may explain the expressed need I had to ‘offer up’ any hardships. This need to ‘suffer for Christ’ remains to this day. I feel guilty that I complained about food, malaria, loneliness and break-ins.
One time the Apostolic Nuncio asked me, ‘What have you accomplished as a missionary?’ I was speechless while grappling for an answer. If someone asked me the same question now, ‘What have you accomplished after two years in the priesthood and 14 months in the mission?’ I would borrow the word of Bishop Socrates Villegas, ‘Wala, nothing.’ There’s nothing I can claim as my own except malaria, scars and scratches, a dead toenail and sunburn. If the seed of faith that God has planted blooms with my cooperation, it is still all grace.
There is plenty of work to be done in the vast vineyard of God in the Solomons. As the song goes, ‘We’ve only just begun.’ Yes, it’s true. I’ve only just begun.