Samoan priest employs culture to bolster faith of islanders living in Alaska

Towering, yet soft-spoken, Samoan Father Pale Schmidt is gently calling Samoans in Anchorage back to their spiritual homeland — the Catholic Church. Using the native language of the tiny Pacific island, he articulates the universal message of Christ to Samoans torn between two cultures.

At the invitation of Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and a group of local Catholic Samoans, Father Pale (pronounced paw-lay) Schmidt, 36, of the Diocese of Samoa Pago Pago in American Samoa came March 3 to serve the growing Samoan population in Anchorage.

Until June, Father Schmidt will assist at two Anchorage parishes — St. Anthony and St. Benedict — where many parishioners are of Samoan descent.

Father Schmidt’s mission is to cultivate the faith in local Samoans, especially those with a limited understanding of English.

Without a deep knowledge of the language, some older Samoans living in Alaska “don’t understand the Word of God being preached here,” Viliamu Vili said in an interview with the Catholic Anchor.

Vili is a native of American Samoa and high chief of his father’s village in Western Samoa. He has resided in Alaska since 1977 and is a member of the pastoral council at St. Anthony. With other Catholic Samoans, he helped petition for a Samoan-speaking priest to come to Anchorage.

Sacraments in Samoan

At St. Anthony and St. Benedict, there have been bilingual Masses in which some Scripture readings and hymns are in Samoan, but with English-speaking priests, the Gospel, homily and Canon of the Mass are in English. The same is the case for the sacraments, including confession.

That has changed with the addition of Father Schmidt.

On one evening at St. Benedict during Holy Week, Father Schmidt was in the confessional for almost four hours — three hours longer than the typical parish confession time slot. He said a number of elderly Samoans came that night, and many had been away from the sacrament for years.

He thinks the language barrier is playing a role.

Already, Father Schmidt has begun teaching classes in Samoan to help Samoans prepare for the sacraments of baptism, first communion, confirmation and marriage.

In the baptism class, Father Schmidt has discovered some children as old as 12 who have not yet been baptized. And “a lot of people” are coming for the Wednesday evening marriage preparation class. He said many of the couples have been cohabitating and were never married in the church.

On Sundays, Father Schmidt celebrates Mass. Now, in addition to the bilingual Masses, every second Sunday of the month, there is Mass entirely in Samoan at St. Benedict or St. Anthony.

News has quickly spread by word of mouth that a Samoan priest is in town and saying Mass in Samoan, Father Schmidt noted.

“Whenever they hear of a Samoan Mass, they always come,” he said — including those Catholic Samoans who have drifted away to other denominations.

Vili hopes the presence of a Catholic Samoan priest will remind them that “our church is our second family.”

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Indeed, the culture “back home,” Vili explained, is devoutly Catholic.

There, he said, people recognize the priest as the “representative of God in the world,” and so “we strongly respect the priests and deacons.”

As well, the young respect their elders, he added, and “at six o’clock in the evening, everybody’s in the house saying prayers. And nobody runs the streets.”

Working around English

But sometimes the scene is different in Anchorage, explained Vili.

He believes language is the issue. Samoans in English-speaking Alaska who aren’t proficient in English aren’t growing in the faith, he said. Because of that, they have trouble transmitting the faith to their English-speaking children, he added.

So Vili hopes that by using their native language, the Samoan priest will reinvigorate the faith in “our older people that have a lack of understanding in the language, so they can understand when the priest is speaking or giving a sermon.” Then, he said, “they can encourage their kids to go to church and do the right thing, instead of getting in trouble in the street and doing the wrong thing.”

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In addition to hearing the homily in Samoan, local Samoans will see familiar bits of their culture at Mass.

The ecclesiastical term is “inculturation” — the transformation of cultural values by integrating them into Christianity. This also includes the implementation of Christianity into different cultures.

This occurs when the particular Catholic Church — especially where the faith is still young and growing — integrates appropriate forms of the local cultural heritage into the liturgy of the universal church, where it is judged useful and necessary.

That could include adding across time certain devout cultural traditions, without distracting or subtracting from the beliefs and practices of the universal church handed down through the uninterrupted Apostolic tradition.

Inculturation is not simply a performance, but it must express true communal prayer of adoration, praise, offering and supplication.

This is delicate work, Pope Benedict XVI recently reminded bishops of Brazil in an address April 15.

“Worship … cannot come from our imagination: that would be a cry in the darkness or mere self-affirmation,” he said. “True liturgy supposes that God responds and shows us how we can adore Him. … The church lives in his presence and its reason for being and existing is to expand His presence in the world.”

Universal and local

“We’re so proud to be Catholics,” said Father Schmidt, “because it’s universal.” In terms of inculturation, he continued, certain local customs of Samoa are “relevant to the Mass.” But “only some of the customs we put in there,” — ones that don’t “change the spirit of the Mass itself,” he explained.

One example is the custom of honoring and welcoming someone with flowers — including Christ on the altar.

“After the consecration, we believe that Jesus himself is present through the bread and the wine,” explained Father Schmidt. That is why just after the consecration, at the Proclamation of Faith, a large, colorful, flower lei is placed at the altar. The lei, Father Schmidt said, points to “the one who signifies the unity of all of us — Christ himself.”

Similarly, before the Scriptures are announced, the Bible is “enthroned” in the sanctuary and surrounded by flowered leis.

“The King of Kings is going to speak to us through the readings. That’s why we enthrone the Bible,” Father Schmidt explained.

These are practices “the Samoan people missed here,” he observed.

But the hope is that Christ, through the sacraments and Father Schmidt’s Samoan voice, will draw them home.

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