Whenever we take a stand for life, we should recognize that we are ultimately taking a stand for relationships. We are standing in solidarity not only with unborn children, but with their frightened mothers and fathers...with the poor, the addict, the elderly, the immigrant, those tormented by mental illness--indeed, we stand with all who struggle and suffer. For God also wants us to be in relationship not just with friends and family, but with these most vulnerable among us, too.
Born in Sant’ Anastasia near Naples, Italy in 1860, Carmelo Giordano entered the Society of Jesus to become a lay brother in 1884. He volunteered in 1886 to serve at the missions in America. With the death of Archbishop Seghers in 1886, the Jesuit Superior of the Rocky Mountain territory, Fr. Joseph Cataldo, S.J., found himself responsible for the whole territory of Alaska. Fr. Cataldo, S.J., hurriedly assigned Bro. Giordano, S.J., and Fr. Aloysius Ragaru, S.J., to join Fr. Pasquale Tosi, S.J., and Fr. Aloysius Robaut, S.J. to the task of establishing mission churches in Alaska. For the next 25 years, Bro. Carmelo Giordano, S.J., would be a key missionary. As a hunter, logger, cook, and builder, he helped establish the first missions. He was noted for learning the Koyukon-Athabaskan language, so well that he prayed his Catholic prayers in the Athabaskan language for the rest of his life. In his unpublished manuscript Memoirs of An Alaskan Missionary, we learn the hardships and rewards experienced by those early missionaries in the making of the Church we see today.
Nothing about founding the missions in Alaska was ideal. According to Bro. Giordano, in the rush to go to Alaska, Fr. Ragaru and he had little preparation when they joined Fr. Tosi. Bro. Giordano recalls the difficulties, “You must remember that when we left Victoria, we had no trunks, no satchels, nothing except what we had on our backs. So when my pants were torn at the knees or some other place, I was obliged to cut a piece from the bottom to patch it, and so I became a young boy again in short pants.” Ideally a grand assignment would be well funded but that was not the case here. Bro. Giordano explains, “Fr. Van Gorpu, who was a friend of Fr. Tosi. Since Fr. Tosi had not a cent, Fr. Van Gorpu gave him $80.00 in gold. Fr. Ragaru got $20.00, Fr. Robaut got $20.00, and Fr. Tosi kept $40.00 for himself. This was all the money we had in starting the Alaska Mission.”
During the November Clergy Days Russian Orthodox priest Rev. Michael Oleksa gave a workshop on cross-cultural communication. Local priests and staff attended the three-day workshop. Rev. Oleksa discussed the issues involved with communicating between cultures by sharing his own personal experiences. He explained that as a teacher when he talked about animals he thought of wolves from his Polish ancestry that eat little grandmas but his native Alaskan students thought of animals as spiritual creatures that chose to give their lives to hunters for feeding and clothing the native people. His use of the word animals was heard by his students differently the way he intended.
When the early missionaries arrived, telling stories of Jesus, a man who gave his life for the benefit of humanity, native cultures were able to relate to the stories of self-sacrifice, something the animals do for the native community.
Fr. Oleksa discussed that when we communicate between cultures we need to be aware that when we say something it may communicate something completely different to another culture. He also explained with cross-cultural communication that we may be communicating the same thing, but not realizing we are just using different words. By being aware of this we can avoid some of the frustration of why others misunderstand what we are saying.
Every three months, clergy in the Fairbanks area gather for support and professional development. At the closing Mass for Clergy Days, Vicar General, Fr. Ross Tozzi expressed gratitude from the diocese for our missionary priests who serve here. In his homily Fr. Ross said, “Fruit is born throughout the world and we see that in our own Fairbanks presbyterate. In the early days of the Church in Alaska, the fruit came from Spain, France, Germany, and Italy. In the 3rd millennium, fruit is born from the countries of Poland, India, Nigeria, and the lower 48. We are grateful to bishops from around the world who have sent priests to continue the flowing water of baptism in our Diocese. As a Cathedral parish we give special thanks to Frs. Kumar, Thomas, Bala, Stan, Syzmon, Alphonsus, Aiden, and Kaspar.”
After the celebration Mass for the closing of Clergy Days, a multi-parish potluck was held to welcome the new missionary priests.
In late November the diocese’s two newest priests from Nigeria hosted a lunch and presentation to familiarize clergy and chancery staff with their native country’s food and customs. Fr. Yakubu Zirra Aiden and Fr. Alphonsus Afina arrived in September from the Diocese of Maiduguri, and will serve our diocese for at least three years.
Lunch consisted of traditional Nigerian foods prepared by Frs. Aiden and Alphonsus, such as rice pilaf, skinless fried chicken, and rice with honey beans (similar to black-eyed peas). The priests also gave a nod to their new Alaskan home by serving their Nigerian Red Sauce with moose meat; the tomato-based stew is traditionally made with beef and chicken.
In November, I had the joy of returning to Mt. Angel Abbey and Seminary in Benedict, Oregon, where two of our four seminarians are being formed. Between meeting with a dozen other bishops and diocesan vocations directors, I led the seminarians in a Day of Recollection on November 2, All Souls Day. I offered Mass that morning, then gave two presentations that reminded them we are “Called to be Disciples of Christ.”
The entire day, we kept silent. We ate our meals in silence, prayed in silence, and walked the beautiful hilltop that overlooks the Willamette Valley in silence. The beauty of Mount Angel Abbey, the bells ringing five times a day for the monks to gather as they pray for the world, led me to more deeply contemplate the call to discipleship. I could see why Mount Angel’s founding monks from Switzerland settled on this site in 1882—they chose a tranquil environment where they could drink in the silence that has been there for centuries.