We must never forget its “failure to honor” Alaska Natives or the suffering they endured as some missionaries to Alaska failed to respect Alaska Native language and culture.
This was part of the Oct. 22 homily given by Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz at Holy Family Cathedral during the annual Mass celebrated just before the start of the Alaska Federation of Natives yearly convention.
Archbishop Schwietz noted that Alaska Native cultures and traditions were sometimes disregarded by representatives of the church, a historical reality that still causes suffering today.
While affirming that the church “must be reminded of the failure to honor these cultures,” Archbishop Schwietz noted that, “We must look at all suffering in the light of faith.”
Suffering, he said, is not the final destination for a Christian.
“Suffering and pain is not the end of all our experiences,” Archbishop Schwietz said. In fact these experiences can actually become a means of “holiness and grace.”
Archbishop Schwietz pointed out that the day’s liturgy coincided with the date on which the church celebrated the feast day for Saint Pope John Paul II, a man who was touched by great personal suffering throughout his own life, both as a child in losing his mother and brother and later as pope when he was shot and nearly died. In old age, too, he suffered from advanced Parkinson’s disease even as he continued serving as pope until his death.
Those who suffer should look to the saints as examples of how suffering can become redemptive, Archbishop Schwietz observed.
In the case of Saint Pope John Paul II, he became a “great evangelizer of the world,” he said.
“He was the pope who brought the Gospel to the whole world and twice to Alaska and even to this very place, Holy Family Cathedral,” Archbishop Schwietz said, referring to the pope’s visit to Anchorage in 1981. “We pray that we might be energized in our faith as we celebrate his faith.”
The Mass opened with a traditional smudging ceremony in which two Alaska Natives processed through the church holding bowls of incense and wafted the smoke over the assembled crowd with the use of feathers.
Smudging is a Native ceremony that usually uses sage or sweetgrass similarly to the sprinkling of holy water. The practice is typically used in parishes with large Native populations. Pope John Paul II was once smudged when visiting Arizona in 1987. He commented then on the beauty of the ceremony, indicating that Native peoples should be able to incorporate their traditional rituals as long as they were appropriate and authentic expressions of Christian faith and not confused with beliefs that run contrary to Christianity.
During the recent Mass in Anchorage, a statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha — the first Native American to be named a saint — stood at the base of the altar. Prayers were offered in traditional Alaska Native languages and many in attendance wore kuspuks — hooded and embroidered jackets that are commonly worn among Alaska Natives.
Archbishop Schwietz concluded his homily by challenging the faithful to be a light to those who suffer.
Our faith “can bring hope to others,” he said, because “the final victory belongs to Jesus Christ.”
The homily ended with an extended quotation from Pope John Paul II, who 33 years earlier stood in the same cathedral and gave an address.
Quoting from the pope’s 1984 letter “The Christian Meaning of Suffering,” Archbishop Schwietz stated: “‘…suffering is present in the world in order to release love, in order to give birth to works of love towards neighbor, in order to transform the whole of human civilization into a “civilization of love.’”