Christianity in Micronesia
Francis X. Hezel, SJ MicSem Articles | Religion

Historical Overview

In June 1668, six Jesuit priests, together with lay mission helpers and a force of Spanish troops, landed on Guam to begin evangelizing the people of the Mariana Islands. This event, the beginning of evangelization in Micronesia, marked the earliest sustained attempt at evangelization anywhere in the Pacific. The arrival of Catholic priests was followed by a period of intermittent hostilities between the Spanish and local people and a disastrous loss of life resulting from diseases that the Europeans introduced. By the turn of the century, both the flag and the faith were planted, and the Spanish kept Guam and the rest of the Marianas as a colony for the next two hundred years. Two Jesuit attempts to introduce Catholicism to the neighboring western Carolines in the beginning of the 18th century were unsuccessful, however.

It was only in the mid-19th century that Christianity was first introduced to the rest of Micronesia. Not long after American whalers discovered the attractions of Pohnpei and Kosrae as refreshment ports, reportedly deepening the shadows of heathenism with the corrupting influence of their own conduct, American Board missionaries and their Hawaiian coworkers founded a mission in the eastern Carolines in 1852. Over the course of the next two or three decades, they established growing Congregational churches on Pohnpei, Kosrae, the Marshalls and the Gilberts (Kiribati). By the early 1870s, the American Board missionaries had trained a group of Pohnpeian mission teachers, a few of whom were deployed to Chuuk to the west to bring the church to the Mortlocks. Within a short time some of these men and their wives had made their way from these atolls to the high islands of Chuuk where, aided by American missionaries, they quickly established the faith throughout the entire island group. By the end of the century, the Congregational Church was solidly established throughout the eastern part of Micronesia: the eastern Carolines (Pohnpei, Kosrae and Chuuk), along with the Marshall Islands, Nauru and Kiribati.

When Spain pressed its claim for title to the Caroline Islands in 1885, against the counter-claims of Germany, the islands were awarded to Spain by papal arbitration. Within a year or two, Spanish Capuchin missionaries were landed on most major island groups to establish Catholicism there. In the western Carolines (Yap and Palau) this was to be the initial contact of islanders with Christianity. In the east, Catholic missionaries would contest the fields in which American Protestant missionaries had already labored for twenty or thirty years.

In 1899, as Germany acquired the islands that the Spanish had once ruled, the German Capuchin priests and brothers who replaced the Spanish Capuchins continued to extend Catholicism throughout the region. In 1911, priests were sent to Chuuk, where they rapidly gained adherents. Meanwhile, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart took up work in Nauru and the Marshalls, focusing chiefly on the islands of Jaluit and Likiep, while their French-speaking colleagues concentrated on the Gilberts.

The Congregational churches were by this time operating largely on their own under local pastors. The number of American and Hawaiian missionaries had dropped sharply over the years and would fall off even more in the early 20th century. On the other hand, German evangelical Liebenzell missionaries entered the scene in 1907. Originally destined for the China Inland Mission, the missionaries had to be reassigned after the Boxer Rebellion put an end, temporarily at least, to the influx of foreign missionaries in China. In 1929 Liebenzell missionaries expanded their work to include the western Carolines, soon spreading throughout the area from Palau to the outer islands of Chuuk to serve as a counterbalance to the Catholic efforts there.

Catholic missionary efforts continued throughout the 20th century, for the development of local church leadership in Catholicism has always lagged behind the Protestant churches, in good part because of the demands of priestly celibacy and the long seminary training requirements. Spanish Capuchins on Guam were replaced by Americans until, after World War II, local vocations to the priesthood multiplied sufficiently to staff the parishes. Spanish Jesuits provided the manpower needed to built the churches in the Northern Marianas and Carolines and Marshalls until the end of World War II. Thereafter, American Capuchins staffed the Marianas, while American Jesuits continued the work of their Spanish brothers through the post-war era up to the present. Missionaries of the Sacred Heart only recently resumed the work they had begun in the Marshalls a century earlier, even as they continued their pastoral aid in Kiribati and Nauru. Throughout the second half of the century, the Catholic Church was finally beginning to be entrusted, slowly at first and then with increasing rapidity, to the leadership of those islanders who had for so long been hearers rather than preachers of the Word.

Filling the Cultural Void: Kosrae and Marianas

In the Mariana Islands and in Kosrae, the first introduction of Christianity occurred at a time of severe depopulation, with both places suffering a loss of about 90 percent of the population over a 40-year period. The catastrophic loss of population, although coincidental with first missionization, was not directly attributable to it, but was brought on by virulent disease carried to the islands by Westerners crew and passengers on the yearly galleon in the case of the Marianas, and whalers and beachcombers who landed at Kosrae. When social institutions crumbled during the rapid population decline, a form of Christianity closely linked with the cultural traditions of those who introduced it filled the social void in both places. Consequently, the impact of Christianity in the Marianas and Kosrae was much greater than anywhere else in Micronesia.

Marianas (1668-1710). Almost from the start of Catholic missionary activity in this island group, sporadic fighting occurred between the Spanish and Chamorros resulting in the deaths of a few hundred people. Even after hostilities ended, however, the loss of life continued at the same rate. The population of the archipelago dropped from an estimated 40,000 at the arrival of the Spanish to under 4,000 just 42 years later. The loss of life was largely due to what the local people called diseases of the ship influenza, dysentery and other sorts of illnesses that usually broke out after the arrival of the yearly galleon and against which islanders had developed no resistance.

By 1700, Spanish authorities had consolidated the population of the archipelago onto two islands, Guam and Rota, relocating them into a half dozen pueblos so that they could be instructed in Catholicism while they lived under the church bell. With the exception of Agana, the capital, these villages consisted of little more than a church and rectory surrounded by a sprinkling of houses. The daily life of the village centered on the church and its rituals, just as the yearly calendar was dominated by church s seasonal cycle. Island culture in the Marianas took on strong Spanish coloring, embracing such features as the layout of the town plaza, the importance of the yearly fiesta in honor of the town s patron saint, the adoption of cockfighting as a favored pastime, and the use of corn flour to bake tortillas.

But the most far-reaching changes were those in the social and authority structure of the island people. The old matrilineal organizational pattern yielded to a more European-style patrilineal system, and the traditional clan hierarchies were forever lost. So, too, were the land inheritance and tenure systems. Meanwhile, the authority system was entirely transformed; as traditional chieftainship patterns were disrupted, alcaldes, or mayors, were appointed for all the villages by the Spanish governor. Church and government remained distinct, at least in theory, even as Catholicism was interwoven into the cultural fabric of the Marianas so closely that for 200 years it was almost impossible to imagine a Chamorro as anything other than a Catholic. Such cultural dislocation at the most fundamental social level would have been impossible without the huge population loss incurred by the society.

Kosrae (1835-1880). The island population had begun its decline even before the arrival of the American Protestant missionaries in 1852. Kosrae, which had become a popular port of call for whaleships and trading vessels a decade or two earlier, was struck by one deadly epidemic after another even as infertility became widespread due to venereal disease. Population declined from an estimated 3,000 to slightly more than 300. The traditional paramount chieftainship lost its authority as the tribute system that were its underpinnings eroded during the population decline. Meanwhile, Benjamin Snow, the pastor, introduced voting in town hall type meetings.

In 1869, just 17 years after Snow s arrival, Sipe, the paramount chief of Kosrae, was forced to submit to what Snow called an experiment in civil government. Seven representatives were elected from different parts of the island to form a council that would oversee island affairs. The Kosraean church was by then the de facto supreme authority on the island. Five years later, in what Snow called a bloodless revolution, the council deposed the king outright and chose a replacement. The meeting at which the king was deposed was held in a church, the election was done by a show of hands after each person had spoken, and the paramount chief s successor was a Christian. Some years later, this elected chief was himself removed from office by popular vote when, failing to fathom the profound changes that had occurred in the authority system, he insisted on his royal prerogatives. It was simply a matter of time before the title would be dropped altogether. The erosion of chiefly authority continued until the end of the Second World War when John Sigrah, the last paramount chief resigned but only after being made a pastor in the Congregational Church and becoming a double brother-in-law of the chief pastor on the island when they married one another s sisters.

The traditional social institutions fell into disuse, as did matrilineal descent system together with all that was linked to it. Unlike the Marianas, where the village remained a political and social unit even if transformed by the Spanish, Kosrae retained no village authority system after the population decline. Church officials exercised such authority as there was at the local level. Among other things, they took over the organization of volunteer labor to repair paths and keep the village clean. The church became the heart of the social and political life on Kosrae.

Nowhere else in Micronesia did such fundamental upheaval occur at the introduction of Christianity. But then too, nowhere else was the local population reduced so drastically as it was in the Marianas and Kosrae.

Drawing the Line

In the early stages of their work, missionaries established markers to distinguish their neophytes from the general population. These markers, which served to offer Christian followers a public identity, were more often than not determined in opposition to features of the traditional culture that the missionaries regarded as pagan. On Pohnpei and Kosrae, for instance, those seeking admission into the Protestant Church were expected to abstain from sakau (kava), a drink that was widely used by the people on both islands on ceremonial occasions. Kava, which was employed in the ancient religious rites and taken as preparation for communicating with the spirits, symbolized adherence to the old ways. Rejection of the drink, on the other hand, signified that a person was ready to make a definitive break with everything in the culture that the missionaries judged to be idolatrous or superstitious. In the Marshalls, where tattooing was invested with religious significance, those who wished to become members of the Congregational Church were enjoined to refuse to submit to tattooing when they came of age.

In Chuuk and the central Carolines, as in many other parts of the Pacific, participation in local dances often became the shibboleth. Local dances were judged to be licentious, not just because of suggestive bodily movements, but because of the context in which they were held. Even into the early twentieth century local dances were a carnival-style event, often lasting several days and accompanied by feasting, a setting that was calculated to create a frenzied sense of abandon among the island population. Sexual excesses were an expected outcome of such events. The German colonial authorities in Chuuk, who initially encouraged a revival of traditional dancing, were forced to impose strict limits on the duration of island dances following the turn of the twentieth century after one of the atolls hosted its neighbors for a dancing display that lasted two and a half months. At the end of it all, the atoll s food supplies had been depleted, and the exhausted population faced near starvation for the next several months. In Ulithi, as in some of the other atolls, the sexual abandon associated with dances continued periodically until well into the twentieth century. It is not surprising, then, that dancing was near the top of most missionaries prohibition list.

In islands where women traditionally went bare-breasted and men often wore little more than a loincloth, Western clothing soon came to be a distinguishing feature of Protestant converts. Islanders everywhere happily donned trousers and shirts or calico dresses at the missionaries injunction, if only because they considered foreign clothing a stylish advance rather than an imposition. Marshallese chiefs, who had the money to do so, outfitted themselves in suits and vests and beamed from under top hats, despite the heat and humidity.

Even Catholic missionaries, generally more accepting of cultural differences, insisted on conformity at times. A Franciscan nun who had just arrived in Yap in 1905 described, in an unintended but striking allegory of deculturation, how the young school girls would gather on Sunday afternoon preparing to begin the new school week, discard the grass skirts they customarily wore in their own villages and don the dresses required of them in the classroom. In Catholic schools of that day as well as Protestant, what was acceptable in the village did not meet dress acceptable standards in school. The same nun noted that at meal times the nuns would watch to make sure that the girls were using their knives and forks rather than their fingers.

In its initial phase at least, Christianity in all its denominational forms tended to define itself in opposition to the culture. Even today we witness some of the more recent Christian arrivals Pentecostal churches and small evangelical groups doing much the same thing, as they thunder against select cultural practices, denouncing them as the deceits of darkness. Older denominations, on the other hand, have had to come to terms with the culture and its practices. In doing so, they tend to eschew the simple dichotomies that once served to demarcate the light of Christ from the darkness of the traditional culture.

Backlash to Christianity

Whatever the feelings of Micronesian islanders toward Christianity, island people normally accorded a status of immunity to the missionaries themselves. Thus, Robert Logan, the well-known Congregational pastor working in Chuuk in the early 1880s, could sally into the thick of battle unharmed, his trademark black umbrella in hand. More often than not, he could report that after his appearance the hostilities came to a quick end. The early Protestant missionaries to the Marshalls, an island group noted for its violence against visiting ships in the early 19th century, were protected by Kaibuke, the very paramount chief who had sworn to avenge the death of his brother some years earlier by attacking every ship that anchored off Ebon. However adverse the effects of the religion they brought to the islands may have been judged, the person of the missionaries was protected.

Only in the Marianas in the late seventeenth century and during the first missionary sorties into the western Carolines a few decades later were missionaries attacked and killed. Twelve Jesuit priests and brothers in the Marianas, together with perhaps two dozen lay catechists, and another three Jesuits in the Carolines died violent deaths. But they were accompanied by Spanish troops, whose rapaciousness and hauteur often made them more of a hindrance than a help to the missionaries they were supposed to protect. Had the missionaries undertaken their work without the protection of the state, they probably would have fared no worse than those who first brought the gospel to Polynesia a century later.

Even so, the new religion faced severe struggles for legitimacy. At times its emissaries were pitted against priests of the local deities in contests that might have recalled the encounter of Aaron and Pharaoh s sorcerers (Ex 7.8-12). The power of the Christian God was tested repeatedly by chiefs and adherents of traditional religious beliefs, although not always in confrontational fashion. As unsubstantial as the old religious systems might have seemed to foreign missionaries, it was unthinkable that local devotees would let them perish without a struggle.

When Benjamin Snow, the earliest Congregational missionary on Kosrae, first ventured into the more remote part of the island to preach the gospel in 1856, he met stiff opposition from the priests of Sinlaka, one of the major deities there. Offended at Snow s intrusion, the priests threatened their people that any who attended Christian church services could expect swift punishment from the gods, perhaps in the form of another flu epidemic similar to the one that had claimed a hundred lives the year before. When Snow s most devoted disciple was injured by a swordfish while out fishing one day, this was understood as a sign of Sinlaka s anger at those who espoused the new religion. Accordingly, most of the people kept their distance from the missionary, who watched his congregation dwindle to no more than two or three. The tables were turned a few years later, however, when the paramount chief, who was hostile to Christianity, suddenly dropped dead while he was inspecting the land he had just seized from one of Snow s church members. The power of the Christian God was not to be trifled with after all, Kosraeans realized.

In the nearby Marshall Islands, the reaction of island chiefs to Christianity soon changed from mild interest to decided coolness. With the death of Kaibuke, the paramount chief who had protected the missionaries during their first five years, resentment deepened and chiefs began to retaliate against those who had defected to the new religion. For the first time they began terrorizing new converts, in some cases even burning down their houses and threatening their lives. But this proved to be the final flailing of a traditional belief system that was soon to be dead.

Yap, an island known for its resistance to change, saw the rise of a cult movement in 1889, just three years after the arrival of the first Capuchin missionaries. The movement was led by seven local priests who prophesied that all foreign missionaries would be driven from Yap. They revived an old fertility cult in honor of the ancient Yapese spirits, promising that women who attended the religious dances held in the sacred site would become pregnant. For a time, the site was a gathering spot for all those who protested the arrival of Christianity. The Catholic priests reported with some self-satisfaction that the movement waned after the wives of five of the seven cult leaders died and several of the women devotees who had attended in the hope that they might have children either suffered miscarriages or died in childbirth.

The reversion to nativism that appeared in the Mortlock Islands, southeast of Chuuk, and in Palau was undoubtedly as much a reaction to government policies and other forces for change as it was to Christianity. A wave of heathenism, as the Protestant missionaries called it, flared up intermittently in Mortlocks between 1903 and 1908. Besides the revival of old dances, it featured a return to traditional dress and the use of turmeric as adornment, reversion to mediums for contact with the spirits of the dead, and other forms of the shamanism associated with old deities. The movement, which never spread widely through Chuuk, seemed to burn itself out after a few years.

A few years later, in 1917, another nativistic movement sprang up in Palau when Temedad, a former policeman during the German administration, began undergoing seizures that were attributed to the god of his village. As a spirit medium and prophet, Temedad claimed healing powers and the ability to foresee the future. Gathering a group of close followers, he traveled the length of Palau predicting the day in which Palau would be free of foreign ways and their proponents. Although he was jailed by government authorities, his disciples carried on the Modekngei movement that he had founded. Long since stripped of its millenarian thrust while incorporating certain features of Christianity, the religion has retained followers up to the very present.

Church Contributions: Education and Health Care

The first formal educational institution anywhere in the Pacific was San Juan de Letran on Guam, opened in 1669, the year after the missionaries arrived in the Marianas. A few years later another mission school was opened for girls. The schools, which operated throughout the next century, were the beginning of a long tradition of Christian involvement in education. The Congregational missionaries in the Carolines operated small schools throughout the region in the mid-19th century, long before a public school system existed. A small printing press was standard mission equipment in those years, when pastors were heavily involved in translating scripture into the local languages for their flock. Catholics, by contrast, would invest their energy into translating devotional manuals, catechisms, and prayer books for their faithful. Edward Doane, an American Board missionary in the Marshalls, wrote in 1861 that eager school children milled around the handpress and snatched the broadsheets to read even before the ink was dry. Reading was all the rage in the islands the missionaries served, as he happily noted, and yearly mission summaries of the day tallied readers as well as converts.

As their flocks grew, American Protestant missionaries founded training schools, roughly the equivalent of high schools, where they could prepare the local men who would replace them as pastors and teachers and the women who would become their wives and supervise lessons for village children. The two most famous of these were the training school in Ohwa, Pohnpei, and an even larger one in Mwot, Kosrae. From these schools would issue the first local missionaries to be sent to other islands in the region.

Catholics, especially during the 20th century, opened some excellent schools. The German Missionaries of the Sacred Heart operated a full elementary school on Jaluit, in the Marshalls, that soon became the premiere school in all of Micronesia. After World War II, when American Jesuits assumed authority over the mission, they set up elementary schools and later high schools throughout the Caroline and Marshall Islands. The best known and most highly regarded were Xavier High School in Chuuk, which was founded in 1952, and Pohnpei Agriculture and Trade School, opened in 1965. Both accepted students from every island group throughout the region. Meanwhile, the Capuchins established Mt. Carmel School on Saipan and a network of parish elementary schools on Guam. Other religious orders opened Father Duenas, a boys high school, and two superior girls schools, Our Lady of Mercy Academy and Notre Dame Academy. St. John s Academy, arguably the best school in the region, was founded by the Episcopalian Church during the same period.

In Micronesia, as in many other places throughout the world, Christianity introduced education where there had been none. Because of the value the church placed on Scripture, it played a pioneering role in the development of literacy. Even when public school systems were finally established, church-run schools, generally known for their superior quality, lifted educational standards. Today, private church-run schools enroll only about ten percent of all schoolchildren in the region, perhaps half of the percentage that they educated during the early 1960s, the heyday of mission schooling. Nonetheless, the private schools have preserved their reputation for academic excellence up to the present.

Christian missions are not as well known for their efforts in providing health care to people who had none, but there are notable examples in the region. A little-known Jesuit brother, Jacopo Chavarri, assigned to the Marianas in 1693, served for 50 years as the pharmacist for a people decimated by a host of Western illnesses. Luther Gulick, the Congregational pastor-physician serving on Pohnpei during the dreadful smallpox epidemic in 1854 that wiped out nearly half the population, inoculated hundreds on the island, thus saving their lives. Fr. Gebhard Rdell, the German Capuchin who began the Catholic mission in the Mortlocks in 1911, found the people reeling from the shock of a major typhoon that had devastated their islands four years earlier and suffering from a virulent typhus epidemic that had taken many lives. Summoning medical supplies and a physician from Pohnpei, the priest began instructing people on how to improve the quality of their drinking water. In more recent times, Edmund Kalau has provided medical assistance to the people of the more remote atolls in the Carolines through his airline and the mission vessel Seahaven.

Long before dispensaries were opened in the villages, church pastors dispensed medicines, bandaged wounds, administered shots, and sometimes transported the sick to the nearest hospital. Medical supplies were routed to the churches from charitable organizations as well as from the government itself. The pastor, after all, was the best educated and often the best provisioned individual in the village, and so was expected to care for the bodily needs of his parishioners in the fashion of the Good Shepherd. Generations of pastors did so during all those years when the sick had no one else, other than the local herbalist or healer, to whom they might turn.

Local Church Leadership

From the very outset of its missionary activity, the American Board set as its goal the establishment of local churches in the islands that would be self-financing, self-governing, and self-propagating. While the Congregational churches were in no rush to make converts it was six years before the first islanders were received into the church on Pohnpei, and eight years on Kosrae members were soon after elevated to leadership positions in the church. By the early 1870s, just twenty years after the first American missionaries landed, a training school was in operation on Pohnpei to prepare local pastors, teachers and deacons. If anything, the process was accelerated for the Marshalls and Gilberts. By 1880, when the training school for these island groups was relocated to Kosrae, the church in these two archipelagos had been left to the care of a few Hawaiian teachers and a dozen or two Micronesians trained in the mission school.

The haste with which the American Board sought to carry out its mission was not without its dangers. Some of those trained for church leadership positions relapsed into pagan ways, much to the dismay of their American mentors. Still, the training school produced dozens of committed men and women who would bring the faith to those islands in eastern Micronesia not yet evangelized. The second generation of Protestant missionaries were more often than not islanders themselves, recent converts who had been elevated to leadership roles in their church. By the turn of the century there were 20 ordained native pastors and 80 more preachers and teachers serving a total church membership of over 6,000. In addition, the churches were well on the way to becoming self-supporting with their annual collections of about $7,000.

Catholics found it impossible to match this achievement, partly because there were no intermediate offices in those days to help screen those who would become pastors. Leadership in the Catholic Church required one long, arduous leap from the pew to the pulpit that demanded commitment to the priesthood from the beginning. Other obstacles included long years of study abroad, severance of the priest from his own community, and a life of celibacy among a people for whom this was all but unthinkable.

As time went on, Catholics could and did serve as catechists, or village prayer leaders, but they could not preside at the Eucharistic celebration on Sunday. Only in the 1970s were married deacons incorporated into the Catholic Church leadership system at first on Pohnpei, then in Chuuk, in Yap and in the Marshalls. In recent years, deacons have provided the day to day leadership in many of the parishes throughout these island groups. Meanwhile, the development of local priests to replace foreign missionaries lagged for a long time. In the Marianas only two Chamorros had been ordained before the war, although there are now 21 local priests active on Guam and another four in the Northern Marianas. Progress was even slower in the Carolines and Kiribati where, apart from a single Pohnpeian Jesuit priest ordained in 1940, the first generation of priests appeared in the 1960s and 1970s. There are now 14 local priests working in the Diocese of the Carolines, including two priests from Kiribati. In recent years Kiribati has been blessed with such an abundance of local clergy that they have not only staffed all the parishes there but also assisted in neighboring dioceses. The Marshalls and Nauru, on the other hand, still do not have a single local priest. Today the Catholic dioceses of the Northern Marianas, Guam, the Caroline Islands and Kiribati all have local bishops at their head; only the Marshall Islands does not.

Inculturation of the Church

If, as we have seen, the church initially defined itself in contrast to the culture, it would eventually come to terms with the culture in which it was embedded. As this happened, it would assimilate some of the cultural forms and begin to reflect the values of the society that surrounded it. This slow process, which varied in manner and degree from place to place as the gospel was digested by local congregations, may be called inculturation.

Changes in church leadership may provide one example. While Congregational churches remained under the general supervision of American overseers until the early 1960s or so, the number of island pastors was limited. In 1965, for instance, Pohnpei Island had no more than two or three full pastors, with church teachers leading the weekly services in most of the island churches. On Kosrae two pastors served the entire population. After the American supervisors were withdrawn, the number of pastors, teachers and deacons multiplied. Today Pohnpei has 20 or 30 ordained pastors, while Kosrae has 14. The number of pastors in Chuuk and the Marshalls increased in much the same way, so that a single congregation may well have three or four ordained pastors at its head. The church titles deacons and teachers as well as pastors have proliferated not so much because they are needed for the church s smooth functioning, but so that they can be bestowed on distinguished members of the congregation in recognition of their contribution just as traditional titles were passed out in the old chiefly systems. The Catholic Church, as it has inculturated, has shown the same tendency in recent years. In Chuuk, for instance, there are now more than 40 ordained deacons, with as many as four or five on a small island in the lagoon. Today church titles, besides being a call to service, are undeniably a path to prestige for those who hold them.

Even the way island churches support themselves is distinctive. At fund-raising events in Congregational churches individuals usually file up to a table in the front of the church and put down their contributions while the congregation sings lively hymns. More often than not, these events reflect the island love of song and display. Kava plants and pigs may be raffled off at Catholic church fundraising events on Pohnpei. A Catholic gathering to raise funds for a new church in Palau featured bands, take-out food, and other sales all in a party atmosphere. In Chuuk, an old cultural form known as the t‰‰chap is frequently used, with each clan presenting in turn an envelope containing the money it has raised in advance, as the amount is marked on a board. Those who wish to add to their own clan s tally are encouraged to do so publicly. The competitive gift-giving contributes to the festivity while also encouraging more lavish generosity on the part of the congregation.

Church worship, too, eventually has taken on a distinctive island flavor. For decades after the arrival of the church, religious services in the islands were almost indistinguishable from those held in other parts of the world. Then, following the Second Vatican Council, Catholics consciously began to make liturgical adaptations aimed at making use of cultural symbols. Flower leis were placed on the heads of the newly baptized to signify the title they were receiving with the sacrament, and they were presented to the one presiding at the liturgy along with the gifts of bread and wine. During special liturgies in some churches, large feasting bowls were carried up, in time with traditional dance steps, at the presentation of gifts. Dances and chants were incorporated into various parts of the services. In a ritual evocative of the Pohnpeian ceremony conducted when forgiveness was being asked of a chief, sakau (kava) was symbolically offered to the Lord in communal reconciliation services held on Pohnpei. In Yap, famous for its dignified dances, distinctive island wailing and stately women s dances were introduced into the Holy Week services.

Church music, in the meantime, had undergone changes of its own. At first it was a cappella congregational singing of numbers translated from the standard European or American hymnals. It was not long, however, before islanders themselves began composing hymns with a distinctive island sound. Instrumental music, absent at first, was eventually supplied by organs, guitars, and often enough today by keyboards. The richness and variety of religious music today represents church inculturation at its best.

Celebrations of major church feast days have taken on the exuberance of island life. During the week before Easter, Congregational churches in eastern Micronesia Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and the Marshalls have adopted the custom of rotating pastors. The visiting pastors are feted during the week and sent off at its end with furniture, household furnishings and other gifts from the community they visited. Christmas celebrations are distinctive in each island group. In Kosrae, the congregation practices months ahead of time for a glittering marching display that is offered in the main church by various sub-groups, all performed in beautifully tailored uniforms and dresses. In the Marshalls, uniformed youth groups perform line dancing routines known as jeptas (originally from the word chapter, suggesting its biblical origins), with the whole performance sometimes lasting as long as an entire day and night. Catholics in Chuuk are more likely to celebrate feasts like Christmas and Easter with a long gathering, or mwiich, in the parish meeting house following church services. There young people will present dramatizations of the events of these feasts, which are interspersed with short talks and hymns, many composes especially for the celebration.

In Guam and the Marianas, islands that remains strongly Catholic, villages celebrate the feast day of their patron saint with a fiesta even to the present day. The fiesta, with its mass, procession behind the statue of their patron, and the feast afterwards, bears all the outward signs of Spanish influence during the long period of that country s colonial rule. Yet, these fiestas reflect in equal measure something much older the Micronesian partiality to a party, especially one that celebrates their locality and offers people the opportunity to show off their capacity to host guests in great number.

Impact of the Church on Society

If the evolving church was clearly stamped with marks of the culture into which it had been introduced, the reverse was also true. In time, the island cultures began to exhibit the imprint of the church.

Once the initial resistance to Christianity ended, the islands on which the new religion had taken root were pacified; the overt hostilities that had periodically broken out between rival villages were terminated. It is true that the colonial authorities encouraged, even demanded, the cessation of warfare. Still, the churches contributed immeasurably to maintaining the peace simply through the presence of a local pastor who could serve as something of an ombudsman and mediate in intra-village tensions. The church made perhaps an even greater contribution through the gospel ethic of forgiveness that it preached. Missionary letters abound in stories of individuals who showed a heroic readiness to turn the other cheek even after suffering an injury that would have been a causa belli just a few years before. Some 30 years ago, a Chuukese man holding the office of teacher in his church, gathered his family together after his daughter had been killed in a sexual assault and admonished his sons not to revenge themselves on the offender and his kin. Such heroic forbearance may not be the normal response even today, but it would have been unthinkable in the prechristian past.

Even beyond this, the church offered a large banner under which smaller social and political units could unite. This was especially important on those islands in which there was no paramount chief. Belief in Christ provided a bond between people of different locales just as membership in the same clan had in the traditional times and continues to do today in many places. A shared faith embraced a far larger portion of the population than clan ties, however, while providing an ideological basis for regarding even the stranger with sympathy. Denominational differences within Christianity led to wariness and even recriminations at times, but except in parts of Kiribati for a short time, there were no violent eruptions among Christians of different denominations.

The church had a strong hand in abolishing the clubhouse prostitution that was a traditional feature of village life in the Marianas, Palau and Yap. Christianity took a strong ethical stand, and a decidedly counter-cultural one, when it asserted that extramarital sexual relationships were wrong. As difficult as this teaching must have been for their converts, the early Jesuit priests in the Marianas recounted one story after another of women who were prepared to surrender everything, even their lives, to avoid transgressing this law. Even if the church did not put an end to youthful sexual escapades as such, it did engender a sense that such adventures were not as harmless as they were once thought to be. In a day in which sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, have cast a dark shadow over what may have once been regarded as natural self-expression, and when high teenage pregnancy rates, sexual assault and incest have become serious problems, the church s message was prophetic.

Observance of the Sabbath by abstaining from work and by attending church services was another gift from the church to society. So successfully was this practice grafted onto society at large that up to the present day the common word for Saturday can be literally translated as Day of Preparation in the Chuukese, Pohnpeian and Marshallese languages since food was prepared on this day for the entire weekend. On those islands where Catholics, who were never as rigorous as Protestants in enforcing the Sabbath ban on work, arrived first, Saturday is simply called Sabado, the Spanish loanword for that day of the week. The strictness with which Sunday rest is observed today varies considerably from place to place, but everywhere the day is special. When an international group recently scheduled the groundbreaking of a new building on a Sunday morning, they were roundly derided for the timing of the event and almost no one showed up for the ceremony.

Meetings of any sort in the islands today begin with a prayer even before the formal welcome. As secular-minded as they might otherwise be, international organizations and foreign groups are always advised to select a pastor from one of the local churches to handle this obligatory formality. It would be tempting to suggest that Christianity has had some influence on the agenda of many of these meetings, particularly those that deal in the currency of human rights, but that question may lie outside the scope of this chapter. Let it suffice to say that the impact of the church has gone well beyond insuring that society makes time for religious activity, whether at the start of meetings or on the first day of the week. The church has worked its way into the soul and heart of the society in a variety of other ways so that island society and the church are closely intertwined today, for better or for worse.

Other Church Contributions

Neither missionaries nor the local pastors who followed them have ever been exclusively taken up with the care of souls, for they have recognized from the outset the link that exists between the body and soul the material and spiritual dimensions in humans. The education that Christian churches have provided is just one aspect of the development work in which these churches have been engaged from the start. Just as they taught people to read and write, and dispensed medicine when they were sick, the churches have instructed people in new techniques of building and farming, improved sanitation, and even defended their people from the depredations of foreigners. What we today call human development has always been an integral part of church work in Micronesia, as in so many other parts of the world. Whatever theology it has used to justify such efforts, the church has worked tirelessly to build a new society, one founded on the love of Christ.

In the 1960s some of the Catholic missionaries in the Caroline Islands were engaged in promoting credit unions and cooperatives, the most notable of which were a housing coop on Pohnpei and a fishing coop in Chuuk. A German Liebenzell missionary on Yap started up a private airlines that offered regular service to the outer islands of that area. Protestants and Catholics alike were a vital force in producing radio programs for broadcast on development themes, with some of the smaller Protestant groups eventually starting their own FM radio stations. Churches of all denominations had a large stake in youth work; most organized youth groups that met regularly for religious instruction and recreational activities. In doing so, they also initiated programs for young people who wished to give up alcohol, tobacco or any other addiction that they felt was harmful to their lives. These programs, situated squarely within a religious framework and offering group support from other like-minded youth, were an island alternative to the better known but less culturally appropriate Twelve Step programs.

Churches have also made a significant contribution in scholarship. Early Protestant missionaries generally showed little interest in the traditional culture and took a purely functional view of the language, while Catholics, especially the German Capuchin and MSC missionaries, brought to their work a strong interest in anthropological and linguistic scholarship that issued in an impressive list of publications. The early linguistic contributions included August Erdland s dictionary and grammar of Marshallese, Callistus Lopinot s book on the Chamorro language, and Salvador Walleser s work on Palauan. Their contribution to the anthropological literature was even more impressive. Erdland produced a volume on Marshallese culture, Salesius Haas did a book on Yap, and Lorenz Bollig wrote what remains a classic work on Chuuk, not to mention the articles that were published in the German Anthropos series. In more recent years, German Liebenzell missionaries Klaus Mller and Lothar K"ser have added to the flow of anthropological scholarship on the islands with their books on Chuuk. Ernest Sabatier wrote with rare insight on Kiribati and Nauru, while Edwin McManus later authored works on the Palauan language, and Elden Buck produced a church history of Kosrae that was tantamount to an island history. Francis Hezel has written several historical works on the region in an attempt to fill the void that once existed in this discipline.

Many of the churches have expanded their educational sights to include the entire community. Perhaps the most reliable news outlet on Pohnpei today is the Baptist-run FM radio station. Other churches are engaged in the production of video programs that can be broadcast on local television channels. Micronesian Seminar, a research-education center established by the Jesuits in 1972, has become one of the outstanding resource centers for print and photographic materials on the area, while producing a large body of video programs and written papers on social issues. Micronesian Seminar also hosts a popular website ( that offers its products to the thousands of Micronesians living abroad.

Possibly one of the most significant services rendered by the churches goes largely unrecognized, however. Church ministers, whether expatriate or local, have always been in a specially favorable position to broker in the conversation between local societies and the powers of the West. Dwight Heine, a Marshallese Protestant church official, did this in the 1950s when he appeared before the UN Trusteeship Council to testify on the damage done to his people in the nuclear testing in the northern Marshall Islands. Some years later, other representatives from the United Church of Christ and the Catholic Church were weighing in on the effects of US political and economic policies on the local population. The ministers and priests who have been party to this dialogue do not simply serve as advocates, but as cultural interpreters between one conversation partner and the other.

Characteristics of the Micronesian Church

To state that the church has become a significant part of the social landscape in the islands is to understate the fact. Indeed, in many places it is the dominant institution in the daily life of the people. There are parallels in other parts of the world, of course, but to find a suitable analogy in the West we would probably have to recall the importance of the church in the Late Middle Ages. In Europe then as in Micronesia today, the church was so closely linked to the local community that they were all but indistinguishable. The church calendar regulates much of the life of villagers; its choirs perform at community events; its pastors call down blessings at the onset of projects and the dedication of buildings; its policies are invoked as norms for community behavior.

This is not to say that government and church have been fused; they remain institutionally distinct, even though their mutual influence on one another is great. If society and church have developed a symbiotic relationship, it is less through institutional links as such than through personal ties. In small island societies government and traditional leaders more often than not also hold important positions in the churches. Johnny Hadley, who died not long ago on Pohnpei, is a good example: he served as a pastor in the Congregational church, while he also held the second highest chiefly role in his large section of Pohnpei, and headed an important government office for years. Hence, this single individual combined leadership roles in what are viewed as the three distinct sectors of life on Pohnpei: government, church and custom. When he emerged from a government-sponsored conference at which the problem of incest was discussed, as happened several years ago, he could report the following week that he had preached about this sensitive topic to his congregation.

The church has also incorporated many of the features of traditional belief and practice, even some of those that might have been regarded as heathenish by early missionaries. Traditional island societies everywhere were populated by a host of spirits nature spirits, patron deities and guardian spirits of those who have died, to name but a few kinds. Spirit possession, which was a common occurrence in prechristian days, still appears to happen today, although often in reaction to some upsetting event within the family or community. The belief in spirits has survived the introduction of Christianity, but in our day most people go to the church rather than to traditional healers for help in neutralizing their harmful influence. Priests are regularly summoned to exorcize demons from young women undergoing trance-like seizures, and blessed water is used to ward off such evil from other family members. In fact, crowds of people turn up at Catholic churches after the Easter Vigil services to fill their containers from the fonts of holy water blessed that evening. Sacred objects like religious medals and blessed palm leaves, as well as rituals and blessings, are as important today was they were in earlier times and for the same reason. They are seen as protections from illness and other harm that is often attributed to sorcery worked by another person.

Micronesian churches, reflecting the spirit of the people, are strongly grounded in the concrete reality of island life. Hence, the churches put much heavier emphasis on behavior than on belief (which is taken for granted, in any case). It is hard to imagine island churches waging war with one another over the finer points of theology. On the other hand, discipline is a critical matter in determining who is in and who is out of the church. Depending on the denomination, smoking, drinking, an adulterous affair or a second marriage can distinguish the true member from the outsider in a way that interpretations of christology never could. Likewise, when churches split from one another, their differences invariably have far more to do with decisions affecting church order eg, on whether to ordain a certain person as pastor than on doctrinal matters.

Overall, the words of Charles Forman s depiction of the Pacific church a folk church representing the society and reflecting its standards rather than a prophetic church ring as true today as ever (Forman 1982: 103).

Challenges of the Church Today

The church in Micronesia has made great progress in meeting the challenge of inculturation; today it is tightly woven into the fabric of society. The danger, however, is that the church may have become too domesticated that fitting comfortably into the large niche that has been carved for it, the church might be a little too accommodating to society. If the risk of the past was that the church might overlook the value of island culture, the danger in our own time is that the church might become a prisoner to culture. The church is called to be a prophetic voice calling whole peoples, not just individuals, to the service of the Lord. It is tempting for local churches to abandon their prophetic role on the grounds that the Pacific way is non-confrontational.

The church in Micronesia also faces the danger of becoming too inward-looking. It can easily become absorbed in institutional glitter or the increase of its membership at the expense of its broader evangelizing mission. Just as fund-raising is competitive in the Pacific, so is the design and construction of churches, with each local community eager to outdo the others. Someone once stated, with some justice, that competitive church-building is the national sport in Micronesia. It is tempting to bask in its pride of place in the community rather than risk walking the alleyways of Babylon. It is safer to tend its flock exclusively instead of offering outreach to the broader community, to restrict its message to narrowly defined religious topics rather than attempt its larger task of providing healing service to the world.

Finally, the church is called on to respond to the new religious groups that have begun work in the islands in the last twenty or thirty years. Many of these new groups are mistrusted and even feared for their aggressive evangelism. The new spirit of understanding and collaboration among older denomination, a hard-won achievement after a century or more of suspicion, seems to be threatened by these new hard-line religious groups. The challenge for the Micronesian church here is not only to preserve the ecumenism that has been achieved but also to extend it to these groups as well, while stoutly refusing to revert to a simplistic spiritualism in order to protect its membership.

Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Further Reading

Crawford, David and Leona, Missionary Adventures in the South Pacific (Tokyo: Tuttle, 1967). This popular book gives something of the flavor of the early Protestant mission work in the area.

Forman, Charles, The Island Churches of the South Pacific: Emergence in the Twentieth Century (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1982). This is still the best analytic work on the development of Pacific missions.

Garrett, John, Footsteps in the Sea and Where Nets Were Cast (Suva, Fiji: Institute of Pacific Studies, 1992-1997). These two volumes present a glimpse of some of the personalities and issues that attended the growth of Christianity during the 20th century.

Hezel, Francis X, The Catholic Church in Micronesia: Historical Essays on the Catholic Church in the Caroline-Marshall Islands (Chicago: Loyola University Press,1991). This offers a descriptive account of the Catholic missionary efforts throughout the heart of the Micronesian region.

Hezel, Francis X, The First Taint of Civilization: A History of the Caroline and Marshall Islands in Pre-colonial Days, 1521-1885 (Honolulu: University of Hawaii, 1983). The book offers a detailed account of the earliest Jesuit mission efforts in the western Carolines (pp 38-59), the impact of the early American Board work on Pohnpei and Kosrae (pp 132-170), and the extension of Christianity to the Marshalls (pp 197-210).


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