MicSem Publications

The Church in Micronesia

by Francis X. Hezel, SJ

1995 Religion

    Francis X. Hezel, S.J., has been working for 27 years in the Caroline and Marshall Islands, two of the archipelagos that make up Micronesia in the Western Pacific, just north of the equator. He is currently the superior of the Region of Micronesia, a mission dependent upon the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. He is also the author of a pioneering monograph, The First Taint of Civilization: A History of the Caroline and Marshall Islands in Pre-Colonial Days, 1521-1885 (University of Hawaii Press, 1983). The text printed here is Father Hezel's address at the annual Jesuit Mission Dinner held in New York City's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel on Nov. 4, 1994.

The late 1960s were exciting and turbulent times, as most of you will remember-for Jesuits on their way to ordination no less than for other young people. There was no wrong that could not be righted, so we believed at the time, no political or economic injustice that could not be corrected if only we Jesuits moved into the right spots and had our hands on the power levers. I was slated, I knew, to return to Micronesia, where I had already taught for three years. But as my ordination drew closer, I was troubled by a question that some of my friends were asking: "Why go to a backwater like Micronesia? If you want to work for the poor, why not head for the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or Guatemala where millions suffer?" I had no answer to this argument at that time. But I remember thinking that even backwaters have claims on a church that professes to care for the poor and neglected. Besides, as a native of Buffalo, I had developed a fondness for backwaters.

So I returned to Micronesia, the mission that almost wasn't. In 1946, Francis A. McQuade, S.J., the superior of the New York Province at the time, believed that his province was already stretched too thin and declared, "The Caroline-Marshalls do not and will not belong to the New York Province." But even provincials can be wrong, as their subjects know only too well. A year later, Father McQuade bowed to higher authority and New York took over Micronesia, adding this mission to the growing list of its overseas responsibilities.

New York Jesuits were not the first sons of Loyola to work in the Carolines and Marshalls. Spanish Jesuits had staffed the mission for 30 years before. Their life in the islands was not the stuff of which legends are made. After all, Micronesia was even more of a backwater before World War II than it was when I first saw it. My image of the Spanish Jesuits who preceded me was of cassocked figures slogging through the mud to bring the sacraments to people in need. Years before, one priest wrote of being awakened in the middle of the night to bring the sacraments to a sick Pohnpeian. He walked two hours to the man's house by moonlight, then returned to his rectory as the sun was coming up, only to find that someone else needed help. So he was off again through the woods and up a mountain to console another dying man. The dedication of these priests was rewarded in the end. The people on Pohnpei were so impressed by their willingness to set out at any hour for any place that many began asking for baptism.

These Spanish Jesuits had plenty of minor tribulations to endure. Brother Aniceto Arizaleta dug the foundation of the new church on Lukunor with a frying pan, for lack of tools, and after his hard day's work sometimes sat down to an evening meal consisting of a little pumpkin from his garden and half an egg. (The other half went to his companion, Father Martin Espinal.) Another priest, in Yap, complained of always being soaked-from the salt spray as he paddled from place to place in his canoe, or from sweat as he tramped under the late morning sun to a distant village for his second Sunday Mass. Amoebic dysentery, jungle rot and sunburn do not make for thrilling tales, but it was such things that these men endured for the sake of the Gospel.

Moments of high heroism were few in these out-of-the-way islands. One occurred just 50 years ago last month, as the Allies were preparing to invade Palau near the end of the war. Six Spanish Jesuits were led out of the hut where they were interned, lined up in front of a ditch and decapitated by the Japanese military police. With them died a Catholic family from Yap. Their burial place remains unknown to this day.

The Americans who replaced the Spanish Jesuits after the war found the mission in ruins. Enter, then, the generation of the great builders, men whose studies in Latin and Greek and philosophy and theology may have provided the intellectual and spiritual resources for their life in the islands, but did not help much when it came to laying a watertight roof on their house. They thumbed through dog-eared construction manuals to learn what they needed to know. Many of us after them have resorted to the same practice to fill the gaps in our formal education.

These early post-war pioneers- Hugh F. Costigan, Thomas C. Donohoe, Edwin G. McManus, William J. Walter, William E. Rively, Leonard G. Hacker, John J. Walter-were men who knew what hardship meant. Some had exchanged a chaplain's uniform at the end of the war for a white soutane; others had survived three years of Japanese imprisonment in Los Banos or Santo Tomas in the Philippines. They prowled the scrap yards of Guam boondocking cement, rebars, old lumber, anything that could be used to rebuild. They were led by Vincent I. Kennally, a kindly Jesuit who was incapable of building so much as a birdhouse, yet was the guiding spirit, first as mission superior and then as bishop, behind the restoration of the Micronesian church.

These early Jesuits did not work alone. They had the help of splendid lay colleagues like the Finns on Pohnpei. Kay Finn was a wizard at taking the hundreds of indecipherable scraps of paper Father Costigan handed her and constructing something that passed as a financial statement. Her husband, Dick, taught mechanics and construction to Pohnpeian boys long before PATS, the Pohnpei Agriculture and Trade School, founded by Father Costigan in 1965, was even a dream.

There arose throughout this archipelago churches and parish houses and schools, even mission-wide schools like Xavier on the island of Chuuk and PATS with reputations that reached far beyond Micronesia. But Jesuit educational work did not end there. As Micronesian leaders surfaced and the transition to self-government began in the 1970's, we sponsored conferences and workshops by the dozen to discuss the problems of modernization, the possibilities of economic development, and the promise of a new political future.

New York Jesuits were entrusted with the job of nurturing and building the young church in Micronesia, and despite the misgivings of that early provincial, that is what they did. I am happy and proud that I was on hand to witness a little of this important phase of the Society's work in Micronesia. I had the good fortune to rub shoulders with generous, committed men who had very little to work with and whose reach was always greater than their grasp. Sure, they were men with quirks-men who might turn up their ancient short-wave radio full blast while their guests tossed and turned in airless cubicles, or who fired away with a .22 rifle at dogs that howled at night. But they were also men of ideals, not so much saints or heroes as divine dreamers, men who willingly put up with the confinement of their missionary life to do what great things they could for the Lord.

But times change-often with breath-taking suddenness. Two years ago I attended the ordination of a young diocesan priest from one of the outer islands of Chuuk. He was the eighth diocesan priest ordained since 1977; there had been none before. Now there are 10 Micronesian diocesan priests, and our seminaries are full of candidates for the priesthood.

In February 1995, 25 years after his appointment as bishop of the Caroline-Marshall Islands, Bishop Martin J. Neylon, S.J. will retire on his 75th birthday. That will be a red-letter day for the island church, not because we are happy to see Bishop Neylon go but because we are proud to see him replaced by his Micronesian coadjutor, Bishop Amando Samo. The Diocese of the Carolines will finally be headed by a local bishop, just as most of the parishes in the Carolines have already been handed over to local priests. If you think this is a bit of mere formalism, the replacement of a white miter-crowned scalp with a brown one, you ought to take a peek into the island churches. The banners hanging there show the traditional loaves and fishes and clusters of grapes, but they also depict adzes and torches and coconut shell cups and other emblems of the local cultures. The church is well on the way to becoming truly Micronesian.

Backwater or not, Micronesia has been the scene of a modern-day miracle of grace. A limping church, shattered by a vicious war and struggling to understand the word preached to it, has come onto its own. It has been a great privilege to watch this transformation. This alone would have been repayment in spades for giving up those favelas in the great cities of Latin America.

Do I sound as though our work is over and there is nothing left to do but close the mission, thank the Lord for graces received and move on to another place and another job? Don't think some of us haven't considered that. Enculturation is wonderful to behold, but it demands a price from those who once played every minute of the game and are now on the bench. When all the telephone calls and knocks at the door are for someone else, one wonders whether it isn't time to start packing.

Yet there is still work to be done, service to be given, whether we're on the first team or not. At our recent Jesuit planning meeting, we recognized the need to surrender most of our front-line pastoral ministry to our Micronesian colleagues. That is as it should be for Jesuits. Meanwhile, we are turning more and more to specialized ministries that can support the diocesan clergy and complement their efforts. We will continue to run high schools and we have committed ourselves to help in the training of seminarians. We will redouble our efforts at community education so that people will be better able to integrate their faith and life. Media work, retreat ministry, spiritual direction for the local clergy: these are some of the other specialized ministries we hope to take up.

We are also looking seaward in new directions. Two of our men are now doing parish work in the Northern Marianas. We have established a beachhead in Fiji, to the south, and are hoping to start retreat work in other parts of the Pacific. Wherever we go, we will always be trying to serve and support the local churches with what talent and charisms we may have to offer.

We in Micronesia have come a long way. We've grown from mission to region. May we not hope that someday we may evolve into the Province of Oceania? When that happens, that former provincial will at last have had his way: the New York Province will be free of the Caroline-Marshalls Mission. Perhaps, on that day, we will be able to acknowledge the wonderful support New York has given our little corner of the world for 50 years by returning the favor.