Jesuits See Growth of Alaskan Church in Formation of Native Leaders

Jesuits in Alaska

Jesuit Fathers Gregg Wood, Tom Provinsal, Ted Kestler and Chuck Peterson with Jesuit novice Christopher Kepler in Alaska

The Society of Jesus founded the Diocese of Fairbanks 125 years ago, and today that legacy continues in the work of Jesuits actively promoting vocations and developing native leadership in Alaska.

In the past, Jesuit priests would either live among native people or visit them frequently. Jesuit Fathers Tom Provinsal, Ted Kestler, Chuck Peterson and Gregg Wood agreed that today the priority of the Catholic Church in “bush villages,” remote native communities only accessible by plane or boat, is the promotion of vocations and catechetical formation and training of lay people.

“How do you combine what we call practical theology with theology?” questioned Fr. Kestler, who described himself as a “theologyholic.”

Members of Alaska’s indigenous communities learn by doing, he explained, whereas the church, influenced by Western culture, puts theory before practice.

“In the Catholic Church, there are some things you can’t teach by doing, but other things you can. We need to find a balance,” Fr. Kestler said.

Relationship building is key in the efforts of finding that equilibrium, the Jesuits concurred, but that is equally difficult when the ministers are absent from the communities they serve for long periods of time.

However, in the absence of priests, local leaders are becoming more independent in making decisions to address social issues, such as alcoholism and drug abuse, affecting their younger generations.

“What this says to me is that our best role is to be somewhat on the sidelines encouraging them to say, ‘yes, you can,’” said Fr. Wood.

Today, he said, native deacons are active participants in the church’s planning, together with the Jesuits and diocesan priests.

The priests are convinced that Eskimos have unique insight and methods of learning that could be very useful if they’re given more opportunities to actively participate in the church in leadership roles.

Thus, their efforts are being focused on the training and formation of those leaders.

“[In Alaska] we are on a frontier,” said Fr. Wood. “And people are going through tremendous changes and transitions in a very short span, and we are in that frontier with them.”

Read the full story at U.S. Catholic.

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