I HAVE been talking to a bishop from Indonesia who I, prepared to admit that a V.hjtc Christmas is very romantic. His diocese, however, his a grfor Christmas and he thinks
that this is much more symbolic of the Feast we shall soon he celebrating once again.
Dutch-born Bishop Anthamy Thijssen, of the Divine Word Missionary Society, is Vices Apostolic of Endch, with headquarters at Larantuka, in Flores, Indonesie. Look it up on the map and you %sill Nee that the Bishop's Sec it really part of a string of islands, Last Christmas, he went 13oleing, on the island of Adonarc.
Boitine is one 01 r I large parishes without priests of their own. "At Chrialmas, people arc apt to think of bishops celebrating Pontifical !Ness in their Cathedrals." Bishop Thijssen says. "In a diocese like mine. the Bishop is likely to say Christmas Mass anywhere he is needed."
Christmas in the Flores territory is the rainy season which is why. while European countries are blessed with their white Christmas. Flores is lush with new green life. All nature conic alive again after
the long dry spell. I he lields await the harvest
-Thus.sans Bishop Thijssen, "it seems to me that. as Christ was horn to bring new life to all the world. our celebration of Ins birth amid a new life in our own part of the world is most appropriate."
When the Bishop Went 10 say Christmas Mass in Boning last vear, he took along sonic food to contribute to the village Christmas
dinner bread and smoked beef. lie also carried various medicines, for in his territory, as in so many others. missionaries adminster to the bodies as well as the souls of their peoples.
In Hotting. the happs, darkskinned villagers had been preparing for their Christmas for weeks in advance. even though they were not to know until just a. few days before the Feast whether a priest would be able to visit them.
livery ,sCrling. in the moonlight. local teachers had been training children andyrownups in the singing for the Mass. also in their own folk songs. which they would sing during celebrations outside the cherish.
The Indonesians are natural singers. "It is amazing how these primitive people can sing threeor four-part songs. or polyphonic music, after very little rehearsal." the Bishop says. "The children will learn new tunes perfectly after only half-an-hour's preparation."
During the rehearsals, night after moonlit night. of the Christmas music, those not taking part pagans and all--sat around enjoying the refrains. Thus, the whole place was permeated with the Christmas atmosphere long before the actual religious ceremonies began. or the bishop had arrived.
Arid what a welcome he got ! He came across by boat and was hesieged. 7 here was no house for him, but he was put in a freshlycleaned shed in which was stored wood for a new church with which the people hope. some day. to replace the present bamboo and grass-roofed building.
Goats slept nearby. but, as Bishop Thij.s.scn says. smilingly, "I was there for two nights and at least the shed kept the rain off me."
Before Midnight Mass. the children went in procession. 'singing Advent .lonins. to their school, where the Infant Jesus was waiting on a specially-decorated table. Then the Figure was taken to a crib in the church.
Now the music changed to the authentic Christnirix limes. a finke. orchestra played "Silent Night... and hs the time the Bishop began Mass. children and adults Were singing at top. After the Mass. the priest, who had another to say at 7.30. mc:i onis representatives of the people. After the 7.30 celebration the big moment came when all the people_ vesting and old. could press forward 10 Meet the Bishop in person.
This meeting between priest and people who hese not seen one for a long time and may not see one again for month... is always so intense as to he almost a ritual. Later, there was a feast, with local dances and songs.
What had the I3ishon done in be tween ceremonies? Before the Midnight Mass he had heard about 2.000 confessions--he was still hearing them a little less than an hour before Mass was due to start. All these people, and more at the later Mass. received Holy Communion.
During . Christmas morning. mothers came with children to be baptised-dozens of them who had been born since a priest was last there.
Then came the sick people, some with minor ailments, other with horrible, grotesque marks of leprosy, elephantitis and other tropical diseases heavy upon them. Sonic die Bishop could treat successfully. others he could send to a dispensary, others again were beyond cure.
Finally. after a two-day crowded visit. the Bishop received the customary gifts of eggs and !is c chickens, which he took home \Yid, him, He walked sonic distance to a beach. waited until tides were right and a small boat could take him back to Larantuka These were leave-takings. the people sad to sec their bishop go. but happy that they had had a priest at all to help them celebrate this Christmas as only a real Christmas can be celebrated.
"Come again next year.they begged. 1 he Bishop promised to do his best. Soon he would be home again, in a diocese that he could get round only once in every three years.
Spare him a thought and a prayer this Christmas: his loyal. happy people, too: his all too few priests. living in their tiny bamboo and grass "rectories"; hiS sick and suffering; and the pagans who live side by side with his Catholics. and for whom he never ceases to pray.