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.
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!
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.
How often do you get a chance to spend a morning with thirty-some bright young islanders, many of them holding good government positions and destined to hold more important posts in the future? They are island leaders in the making–and the program held for them this past week on Guam was termed the Executive Leadership Development Program. These young people gathered from six different governments, including the various parts of Micronesia and American Samoa.
The other night when I was invited to lead prayers at a Chuukese wake, I thought I knew what to expect. First of all, the viewing was not for a single person, but for two young men–first cousins, as it happens, who died violent deaths. The two youths, one of them just 18 and the other in his early 20s, died of gunshot wounds to the head, after another young man, who was hit in the face with a slingshot, caught up with them and killed them both. Who started the trouble? The shooter said that one of the Chuukese did. Who knows? Maybe the court will clarify all this in the course of time. But that evening my job was not to determine responsibility for the crime; it was to comfort the families of these two young men.
I was still a young priest in 1975 when a young Chuukese friend hanged himself. Then, a few weeks later, another acquaintance took his own life. Before long I found myself paying attention to the stories of others doing the same. It was the beginning of my 40 years of research on suicide–research driven not by theoretical concerns, but by a determination to find out what was responsible for the early deaths of a growing number of islanders.