Papua New Guinean (PNG) politician Sir Michael Somare, also known as the grand chief, passed away on Feb. 25 of this year. Somare, a Catholic, was the PNG’s first prime minister and also its longest-serving. The following article about Somare by Archbishop Francesco Panfilo, SDB, was featured in the most recent edition of Church Alive a publication of the Catholic Bishops Conference Papua New Guinea & Solomon Islands.
I left PNG two days after the death of Grand Chief Sir Michael Somare, but not after sharing some of my thoughts about this great man with the residents of Don Bosco Technological Institute, Port Moresby.
On March 12, from the Philippines, I followed the whole funeral Mass on social media. I was very impressed by the outpouring of love and affection shown to him and to his family, especially to Lady Veronica.
I listened attentively to the eulogy of his daughter Dulciana and something triggered within me when she described her father “as the greatest shock-absorber this country has ever seen”. And then she mentioned that “in the last ten years when he was confronted with the most public opposition he had ever faced in his entire political and personal life, he handled it with the grace and patience of a saint”.
She then stated: “For the record, at his passing, I want to say that my father was unlawfully removed as the legitimate prime minister”. And yet “he exercised incredible caution despite his frail state.
He feared that any bad decision on his part would have had such lasting and adverse effects on this nation that he merely accepted his fate and never defended himself beyond certain points”.
The reason why something was triggered within me is because during those difficult times I was the president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of PNG/SI and I issued a statement that became the headline of one of the daily newspapers: “Bishop asks Sir Michael Somare to resign”.
Of course, the grand chief was offended and for sure more pain was added in the process.
I remember that I phoned Archbishop John Ribat and Father Victor Roche, SVD, the secretary general of the bishops’ conference, asking them to go to the house of Sir Michael to present the complete statement that I had issued.
Here is the statement:
“These are difficult moments for the country and the Church is concerned about the welfare of all people, especially the little ones who are those who suffer more when conflicts and disagreements come up. People should be commended for their patience. We urge people to continue to be calm and to always respect the rule of law. We call on the political leaders to think about the people before they think about themselves and their political careers. We all need to pray for peace, humility and reconciliation.
Grand Chief Michael Somare has been vindicated with the decision of the Supreme Court. This should be a reminder to everybody that no one can play with the Constitution. In this particular case it is the Constitution rather than numbers in parliament that decide what is right or wrong. However, what happened following the court decision has set a very dangerous precedent and the speaker of the house has to take responsibility for his actions. Political giants of the former opposition should also have known better.
We need a political compromise. The honourable thing to do for Sir Michael Somare, in the interest of the country and considering his health, would be to resign, so that a new government could be legitimately and constitutionally established. As part of the political compromise, the speaker of the house should also resign or be removed. He has done enough damage to the country and the country does not need any further damage. Let us pray for wisdom that the Lord may instil in our political leaders the spirit of service, rather than the spirit of power.”
I too was disappointed, because I was expecting the newspaper to publish the entire statement, and in particular the second paragraph, where I was making it clear that Sir Michael Somare was the legitimate prime minister. I was happy when I heard Dulciana saying the words that I mentioned above, because they are so true.
In the year 2013, the Bishop Conference held its annual general assembly in Madang and the GC Sir Michael Somare was invited to talk to the bishops. That day, I was chairing the meeting and so I welcomed Sir Michael and after his speech various bishops asked him questions. It was a very cordial and beautiful meeting. At the end, I thanked him for coming to visit us and told him: “I am happy that I am seated at your side because I have the opportunity to apologize personally to you because I am the bishop who asked you to resign.” He smiled broadly and in his humble way he accepted my apology.
May the Lord grant him the reward of the good and faithful servant.