"The Church is alive!"
Pope Benedict XVI spoke these stirring words five times over in his homily at the Mass inaugurating his ministry as Bishop of Rome on April 24, 2005. During a recent visit to the Pacific islands of Oceania, as chaplain on a cruise ship, I experienced firsthand what the pope was talking about.
The visit to Apia, Western Samoa, was especially moving. I found the young Polynesian Rector of the cathedral, Rev. Spatz Silva ("My father was part Portuguese," he explained), wearing a black clergy shirt with no collar and below it a lava-lava: the below-the-knees skirt worn by many men in Oceania, including all the police; a sensible alternative to trousers in the tropical climate. Father Silva had already celebrated two Masses early in the morning (both in Samoan). He was also responsible for an English Mass at noon and two more Samoan Masses in the late afternoon. I immediately offered to celebrate the noon Mass for him.
Father Silva told me that the first weekday Mass, at 5:45, regularly filled the cathedral — easily 800 people plus a full choir. On Sundays they have 60 boys serving at the altar. There is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in a side chapel 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Before the noon Mass, I prayed for some time at the tomb of the first (and, so far, the only) Polynesian cardinal, Pio Taofinu’u, archbishop of Apia. The massive white marble stone bears his coat of arms and motto: Duc in altum — "Launch out into the deep."
"We miss our cardinal," Father Silva told me, adding that he had traveled halfway round the world to attend the funeral: "We carried him all through the town." The memorial card that Father Silva handed me has the following words under his photo:
Sunrise December 8, 1923
Sunset January 19, 2006
I liked that. For centuries, Polynesians sailed thousands of miles in their small craft, using the heavenly bodies to determine their position and course. For such people, sunrise and sunset are crucial.
Present for the noon Mass were at least 75 people. Music was provided by two women singers, one of them playing a guitar in the soft lilting style we associate with Hawaiian music. At the offertory, a woman came forward and placed a lei around my neck. Afterwards I learned that the Mass, including my brief homily, had been broadcast live on local radio.
Following the Mass, Father Silva drove me up the mountain behind the town for lunch with Archbishop Alapati Lui Mataeliga. He was ordained archbishop of Apia in 2003 at the age of 50. I found him deeply impressive.
He received me in an electric-blue, flowered Polynesian shirt topped by a pectoral cross, above a black lava-lava. Present were six local priests and an American couple from Florida, who were conducting a charismatic mission in the island. We all sat in chairs around the edge of the room, to be welcomed (as the archbishop explained) in the traditional Samoan way. Two men in lava-lavas and without shirts distributed kava-root liquor to the assembled company, going first to the guests, then to the archbishop and his priests. I merely sipped the brew (it’s an acquired taste). The locals drank deep, each one first pouring a drop on the floor, which was evidently part of the ritual.
We were then treated to chanting in Samoan by the two young men who had served us, seated cross-legged on a grass mat on the floor, one of them beating a small drum. At the ceremony’s conclusion the archbishop invited us to the large table in the middle of the room. Dishes containing sufficient food for four times the number present were uncovered. I asked Father Spatz, who sat on my right, whether lunch was the principal meal of the day; to which he replied that in Samoa every meal was the principal one. The girth of the locals present lent credibility to the statement.
The archbishop was a gracious host, telling me several times what an honor my visit was, to which I replied that the honor was mine. I asked about the impressive modern Carmelite convent we had passed on our way to lunch. The archbishop told me that they have so many vocations that they must make foundations on other islands. "The people love the nuns," he told me. "Even the non-Christians ask for prayers, and bring them food and other offerings."
Before we parted, a young priest who was returning to his post on another island knelt by the archbishop’s chair for a long blessing in Samoan — a scene that should be commonplace, but sadly is not. I felt I was being transported back to the collegiality of the second century.
Speaking to the Swiss bishops at their ad limina visit in November 2006 about Jesus’ parable of the great banquet, to which those first invited declined to come, Pope Benedict spoke of the refusal of God’s invitation by so many in the First World today:
During the ad limina visits, I hear of many serious and tiresome things, but always — precisely from the Third World — I also hear this: that people listen, that they come, that even today the message spreads along the roads to the very ends of the earth and that people crowd into God’s hall for his banquet.
Holy Father, you are right — the Church is indeed young. I have seen it myself.
John Jay Hughes is a retired priest of the St. Louis archdiocese. His memoir No Ordinary Fool: Testimony to Grace will be published by Tate in 2008.