A few weeks ago, Cyrano’s offered a reading based on A. J. McClanahan’s book, Growing up Native in Alaska. With just a few lines and a few sketches, the readers offered a fascinating view into what it was like to grow up a minority in your own land. A few days later, headlines blared out the news that the Jesuits would pay $50 million to Alaska Native victims of clergy abuse. And it occurred to me that growing up Native in some places in this state had challenges I could not even imagine, challenges not mentioned in A.J.’s book.
I grew up very Catholic. The church was the center of our spiritual and social life. The priests who manned the parish and the nuns who taught in the school were on a pedestal way beyond anything we mere laics could hope to reach. When our pastor, Father Vincent, came to our classrooms for a visit, the room had to be clean, the desks absolutely straight, lined in military rows, and every decoration on the walls had to be inspected twice to make sure they were worthy to be seen by him. When he entered the room, the class rose as one and said, “Good morning, Father Vincent.” And he would smile the most beautiful smile in the world, give us a blessing – for which we knelt in unison – and finally tell us to sit down, a privilege in his presence.
Now this may all sound like overkill to non-Catholics, or, for that matter, to Catholics of this century. But Father Vincent or Father John or any of the myriad priests who came through our parish were viewed as one step away from Christ and so deserving of every respect possible. Father Vincent was especially revered. His time at St. Michael’s coincided with the time of greatest growth and activity in the parish. His ministry was our comfort in times of sorrow, our joy in times of blessings. His was the only voice that could cause my father to put down his butcher’s knife and run next door to the rectory because the wine being made in the cellar was ready for the next step.
Father Vincent dispensed hugs quite freely. If he walked through the schoolyard while we were playing, a mob of urchins would attack him, fighting to get close enough for a hug and the inevitable muttered blessing he gave to each and every one of us every time he saw us. I have videos of him walking up and down the line of procession into the church for someone’s May Day or First Holy Communion or Confirmation. Even without sound, I can hear his voice booming out the rosary so that the entire line could hear and repeat it with him. He was as close as I will probably ever really get to a truly holy person. I never feared him or his touch. He was a safe haven and his arms were always open to the smallest of his flock.
So as I read about the unspeakable violations of Native children by Catholic priests in the bush, I think that it makes the phrase “growing up Native in Alaska” take on a horrible new depth. Not only was this a generation charged with redefining the whole meaning of being Native, with one foot in tradition and one foot in the newly emerging corporate world, but this was also a generation of lost little children, led astray by the shepherds their parents trusted would lead them down a righteous path,
I can’t imagine what it would take for these boys and girls to heal. Even today, as grown up as they might be, inside they are still the little children whose innocence was so brutally taken from them. Just as inside I am still the child who ran with joy and open arms into Fr. Vincent’s embrace. His touch gladdened my heart and soul. For those little children in the Bush who felt a priest’s warm embrace turn ugly and shameful, it must still be the most painful memory imaginable.
A priest’s embrace was a haven in my childhood. It was a horror in theirs. In my head, I find it almost impossible to reconcile the fact that the same institution could encompass some people capable of giving such great comfort and some people capable of creating such great revulsion. Priests represent Christ on earth. How could they have done anything so evil in the name of that Christ?