Seeing God’s presence at a high school in Micronesia
Since long before the Synod on the Amazon, an ostensible concern for the integrity of doctrine and liturgical practice has taken on racist overtones. Vandals stealing indigenous statues from a church in Rome during the synod, then throwing them into the Tiber River in the name of fighting “idolatry,” is only one example of this phenomenon. The charge of paganism hurled at Catholics in the Amazon increases my uneasiness about the state of our church.
I am now an English and math teacher at Xavier High School, the Jesuit high school in Chuuk, one of the Federated States of Micronesia. Xavier is a boarding school that provides both a home and an education for students from all over the region. The Pacific Islands have many of the same pastoral difficulties and ecological challenges as does the Amazon region, and the decisions made in the wake of the synod will reverberate loudly here.
The charge of paganism hurled at Catholics in the Amazon increases my uneasiness about the state of our church.
We have noted the treatment of our brothers and sisters of the Amazon. When Pope Francis and members of indigenous populations presided over a tree-planting ceremony to mark the opening of the synod, some Catholic commentators, including a canon lawyer interviewed on EWTN, denounced the event as “pagan.” There were also mocking references in outlets like Life Site News to “indigenous people in face-paint and feather headdresses” at Mass, causing Pope Francis to remark that there is little difference between “having feathers on your head and the three-peaked hat worn by certain officials in our dicasteries.”
At the root of racism in the church is a resistance to seeing God in anything that does not resemble ourselves. The idea is that Christ is present only in European-style churches, in imagery that white Anglo Catholics recognize, in solemn Latin chants, and in liturgies designed for Europe and the United States. Arguing that any effort to make the church and liturgy culturally relevant in another part of the world amounts to idolatry reveals an inability to see God everywhere. This narrow vision is one more way for the powerful to claim that other groups of people are not of God and are therefore undeserving of basic dignity. It amounts to forgetting that all of humanity is a reflection of the divine.
At the root of racism in the church is a resistance to seeing God in anything that does not resemble ourselves.
Incidents like the theft of the indigenous statues in Rome force me to consider that some may not see our Xavier High School community as “Catholic enough.”
While each of the Pacific Islands has its own distinct language and culture, a trait they share is that they take community seriously. There is little sense of individual property ownership, and resources must be shared freely within communities. Children receive care outside of their immediate families and often grow up alongside others who are not their biological siblings.
The students of Xavier rarely make distinctions between Catholic and Protestant (or between the Jesuits and other orders of priests and religious). They just know that they are Christians and that Xavier’s mission statement is to “educate competent, conscientious, and compassionate leaders whose lives are guided by the Christian call to service.” The way they never hesitate to care for one another, sharing comfort as well as possessions, should be evidence enough of their commitment to the Gospel way of life and Xavier’s success as a Catholic school. The success of Catholic education is not only measured by how many lifelong Mass-goers it produces.
Christ is present in our liturgy, even in our campus dog who wanders in and out of Mass as she pleases.
I can tell you that Christ is present in our liturgy. He is present in the undecorated, open-air chapel overlooking the ocean; in students and adults sitting cross-legged on the floor and whispering excitedly instead of maintaining silence; in the priest accepting a marmar (a wreath of flowers worn on the head) to wear when the gifts are brought up; in our campus dog who wanders in and out of Mass as she pleases; and in the students loudly and joyfully (if not always correctly) singing a mashup of local and English hymns (many that might be more common in Protestant services).
If some Catholics refuse to see Christ in Micronesia or in the Amazon, the global church will suffer the consequences of their myopia. Catholic means universal, and being the universal church is at the core of our religious identity. If we sacrifice this part of who we are, how can we claim to be followers of the same Jesus Christ who urged his disciples to spread the Gospel to the ends of the earth?
Further, if some Catholics cannot see God’s presence here and are unable to grasp the sacredness of these islands as part of divine creation, will they ignore the growing cloud of climate change that threatens their very existence? If white Catholics can treat the indigenous people of the Amazon, who face the imminent threat of environmental destruction, with disdain, how will they receive Xavier students when rising seas force them to seek refuge abroad? The underwhelming response of many European and U.S. Catholics to the current refugee crisis points to how this refusal to find Christ reflected in those different from ourselves has dire humanitarian consequences.
When those in power make idols of themselves, those without power suffer greatly. As Pope Francis recently said, “Worship of self carries on hypocritically with its rites and ‘prayers,’ forgetting the true worship of God, which is always expressed in love of one’s neighbor.”
Embracing our identity as the universal church is a matter of grave importance. We must reject the worship of self and return to the worship of God.
Editor’s note: America Media partnered with Xavier High School of Micronesia for #GivingTuesday in 2018.