I just returned from the Alaskan Federation of Natives Convention in Fairbanks. I joined my brother bishops, Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and Fairbanks Bishop Donald Kettler in being a part of the celebrations in this community event. It was a good experience.
When I arrived in Fairbanks, I learned a film crew was producing a PBS documentary on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic church workers that occurred in the Native villages of rural Alaska. It was their intention to focus on Kettler's address to the AFN participants.
We celebrated a Mass of Reconciliation at Sacred Heart Cathedral. Along with everyone attending this Mass, my brother bishops and I were each given a burlap patch with a brown ribbon attached to it. Created by parishioners and based on the sackcloth and ashes worn by the people of Ninevah as a sign to God of their sorrow for their sins (Jonah 3:1-10), we all wore them as a sign of public penance. They were a visible sign to victims of sorrow for their injuries and pain and our prayers for them and all who have been wounded by this scandal.
In his homily, Kettler said, "In this diocese, we as Church failed badly our young brothers and sisters. Some of our priests, ministers, staff and volunteers harmed children, sexually abused them. I must acknowledge and admit these grave, evil and sinful acts. I stand here before you and I know the other bishops and priests here in this sanctuary do as well, to acknowledge to you that we are contrite and full of sorrow. As bishop, I express profound sadness and repentance on my behalf and on behalf of this diocese and the Church for these terrible acts. I also want to apologize to anyone who has been emotionally, spiritually or physically harmed when your native culture was dismissed, ridiculed or suppressed by members of the Church. Many of our liturgies, including today's, are richer because of your cultural contributions to our Church celebrations and activities."
The theme of this year's AFN gathering was, "Village Survival." It seems to me that in order to survive any ordeal, we must come together as a community. I noticed that the coverage of the AFN convention in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner began with the many threats to the survival of Alaska Native people and their village communities: sexual abuse, domestic violence, prejudice and racial discrimination, subsistence laws, suicide, alcohol and drug abuse, school drop-out rates, high rural unemployment, poverty and family breakdown. These problems are huge areas of concern and the reason for the broken hearts and spirits of too many Alaska Native people.
From my perspective, village survival is not only the concern of Alaska Natives. When these tragedies affect any of our fellow Alaskans, they concern the wider community and its institutions - our local and state governments, our churches and our schools. As we share our cultures, we should also stand in solidarity with those who suffer. One way of being in solidarity is to share our traditions based on mutual respect and treat the suffering with total compassion.
Let me use this illustration in sharing our cultures. If I had a dollar and you had a dollar, we could agree to exchange dollars. In doing so, I would still have one dollar and you would still have one dollar. Our status wouldn't change - we would still each have one dollar. But, if you shared your culture with me and I shared my culture with you, we would still possess our own cultures, but we would now be enriched by knowing something of each other's way of life. In the exchange of cultures, I would be richer in understanding your culture, wisdom and traditions. In addition to learning a new culture, I would still have my own. If we continue to exchange cultures with others, then the community would be richer for it.
While many people do not desire to reveal their pain and suffering, it should not be ignored that when one hurts, it affects all of us. True compassion leads to sharing another's pain. To help our friends and neighbors to survive and to flourish is not only a theme in the Bible and the heart of this year's AFN convention; it is our obligation and our duty.
Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.