Tomorrow is the Feast of the New Guinea Martyrs who died as a consequence of the Japanese invasion of 1942. Growing up in Australia post war and as an active Anglican I was well aware of the 11 Anglican martyrs, priests, nurses, teachers and an indigenous lay catechist, one of whom came from a nearby parish in Melbourne and was memorialized there. The stories of their deaths were still very fresh and as a young person I was deeply impressed with the fact that people could still die for the faith in the 20th century. Given that Papua New Guinea before independence in 1975 was the main mission field for the Australian Anglican Church, big services commemorating the New Guinea Martyrs were held annually in the major Australian cities. The story of how the Bishop of New Guinea broadcast to the Anglican missionaries on the eve of the Japanese invasion telling them to “remain with their people” and how the invaders cruelly treated the residents of the mission stations both foreign and indigenous has been related many times. We were always told that the Church in Papua New Guinea grew out of the “blood of the martyrs.” The lasting memorial to the martyrs was the establishment of the Martyrs School in Popondetta after the war.
It was not until 1995 that I had the opportunity to visit the famous Anglican missions on the coast of north Papua some of which took the brunt of the initial Japanese landing in that region. I remember powerfully a young Papuan taking me by the hand and leading me along the beach at Buna (where many Americans, Australians, Japanese and Papuans died in the fighting) to a large white metal cross and saying “this is where the missionaries were beheaded.” It was an unforgettable moment. I was forced to read more about the whole war-time suffering of not only the Anglican Church but of all the churches who had mission districts along the northern coast especially around Rabaul and Lae. All in all there were 333 Christian martyrs in Papua New Guinea in 1942 from the Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist as well as Anglican churches.
In 1996 12 carved stone figures were placed in the niches on the West Front of Westminster Abbey vacated since Reformation times commemorating Twentieth Century Martyrs. Among them is Lucian Tapiedi, the young Papuan catechist who was martyred in 1942. It was fitting that his witness is remembered at the heart of the Anglican world.
In Sunday’s gospel Jesus says: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” It is unlikely that any of us will be called upon to give up our lives for the sake of the gospel but we are thankful for those who have done so and inspire us by their faithful witness.
The collect for New Guinea Martyrs Day reads:
“Almighty God we remember before you this day the blessed martyrs of New Guinea, who, following the example of their Savior, laid down their lives for their friends; and we pray that we who honor their memory may imitate their loyalty and faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”