Advent has always been a season of wonders for me. The rich readings from Isaiah and other prophets promise all kinds of miracles–flowers in the dry wilderness, pools of water in the desert, sound health to the maimed. Then there are the smiles and warm thanks from the homebound I visit at this time of the year.
I shouldn’t have to spend everyweekend at the parish, I told myself as I got ready to fly off to Honolulu for the long Thanksgiving weekend. My long-time friend, Jason Aubuchon, was hosting a dinner for a few other old cronies besides myself: Kevin O’Keefe and Steve Savage and Pat Billington. It was the old Micronesian gang gathering on neutral ground to share stories and imagine what might happen in the future.
The stories flowed, along with the red wine. So did the questions: Does the Chuuk secession movement have any chance of achieving their goal? Will China swallow the western Pacific in years to come? What are the chances of the Micronesian nations getting US aid after Compact funding ends in 2023?
But there was time for fun, too. The brewed coffee and leftover pie, cold turkey and ham, and so much more. Saturday brought time on the beach and a good run with Jason’s oldest daughter. Before I knew it, I was back on the plane to Guam thinking about what I might say at the three masses I was scheduled to celebrate the following day.
Thanksgiving was as relevant as it has ever been this year. What do we have to be thankful for? That circle of friends in Hawaii, along with those I visited in the Philippines two weeks earlier, is near the top of my list. Friends can never be taken lightly.
While the Micronesian Games were going on in Yap, the annual diocesan workshop was being held in Chuuk. Sixty people from the diocese gathered to review the mission of the church and reflect on what more could be done to make the church truly Micronesian. The word used to headline the workshop was “empowerment,” but the goal was the one we foreign missionaries have embraced ever since the early 70s: return of the church to the people of the Carolines.
It was hard to miss the signs of progress the diocese has made. Sakau brought by the Pohnpei delegation was featured drink each evening. Two local bishops were seated among us. Another 20 or so deacons attended, along with 16 local priests, and a scattering of lay people. In fact, I was a stand-out as the only gringo there, although I didn’t feel like at stranger at all. The week was more like a family reunion for me and everyone else.
My job was to make a presentation now and then–on the mission of the church, changes in the church through the centuries, etc–and steer the discussion. If ever I thought that my position as a priest, especially an American priest, was going to guarantee that my thoughts would dominate, I need not have worried. There were no long silences with heads bowed in respect, I found. Quite the contrary, the problem was in getting the microphone around the table quickly enough to catch the interventions. Lay people could talk just as readily and as knowledgeably as priests and deacons, we discovered.
On the final afternoon of the workshop, we spent time reflecting on the growing problem of broken families today. The portrait of the old extended family wasn’t just my usual soliloquy, but a composite drawn from comments offered by the participants from all the island groups. We might not have settled on any quick remedies, but we did reflect on how much we all had in common.
For me the workshop was convincing proof of how far the church in the Carolines has come in the past 50 years. Sure, the church has its issues–the same sort that afflict churches everywhere, I suppose. Not all our church leaders would claim to be best friends with each other. Several of those ordained have left the priesthood. Communications are not what they should be, we all agreed. But an old-timer like me could not look around the conference hall without mumbling a short prayer of thanks that what we had hoped for all those years has been achieved: a church that belongs to its own people. Alleluia!
It was sometime the late 1980s, as I remember. Sr. Dorothy and I were driving to some hotel or other on Saipan for the dress-up dinner that was to end a Micronesian library conference. We both heard a pop as our car suddenly began to swerve. It was a flat tire, we saw when we came to a stop. I looked at Dorothy, but she began a long monologue about how she knew nothing about changing car tires. So there was nothing I could do but crawl under the car to position the jack, start loosening the bolts, and find the spare tire. And hope that my good trousers and pressed shirt didn’t look too much the worse for wear when we finally got to the dinner. All the while, Dorothy was chirping away–wishing that we had left a little earlier in case of such emergencies, suggesting that we should have taken the middle road rather than the beach road, complaining about the condition of the highways, reminding me how late we were going to be for the dinner.
Our visit to Nagasaki was soul-stirring for me. The place is distinguished by suffering and, even more touchingly, by the noble response to this suffering. It’s as if the sweet smell of sanctity (as they would have put it back in the old days) is everywhere. The city and its surroundings are the site of a couple massacres. There was the well-known devastation wrought by the atomic bomb in 1945 that took over 70,000 lives–nearly 150,000 if you include those lost in the explosion in Hiroshima just a few days earlier. Then there was the other lesser-known wave of killings that began about 400 years ago with the persecution of Christians, concentrated mostly in the area of Nagasaki. The estimated number of Japanese Christians killed over the years is 250,000.
I just finished a week-long trip to Japan arranged by Shoiji Sato, the former Japanese ambassador to FSM and now the head of APIC. The main purpose was to do a presentation that might remind people of the era in which Japan governed Micronesia. It was a magical time in many ways: the introduction of public schools, the growth of an economy that was able to pay government costs, the spread of power lines and bicycles throughout the towns.
Thousands of years before latte stones and hollowed lusong rocks began appearing, a group of seafarers first settled in the Marianas. Others soon followed. We see the traces of these first settlers in a few coastal villages–places like Achugao on Saipan, Unai Chulu on Tinian, and Ritidian on Guam.
The birthday party for the 25th anniversary is over. It was celebrated on Pohnpei for nearly the full week after Easter. Photos have been posted, good wishes exchanged, and the convocation and gala dinner are a happy memory now. All that remains now is to move forward step by step to achieve the dreams that were shared at the birthday celebration.