Marshallese offer a grand welcome to American catechists

David Suley, wearing a lei, with his new Marshallese friends. (CNS/Courtesy of Arceli and David Suley)

The Catholic Church in the tiny nation of the Marshall Islands is healthy even if somewhat small, said David Suley, the recently retired director of the Catholic Home Missionsof the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Suley, along with his wife, Arceli, conducted a 10-day workshop on faith formation for about 75 lay leaders in June. The Suleys focused much of their training on the new evangelization first put forth by Blessed John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI. Suley said they also offered a series of reflections on church teaching.

The couple found the Marshallese to be enthusiastic about doing God’s work in missions spread across five islands and 29 atolls about halfway between Hawaii and Australia.

“A few priests and laypeople run these missions,” Suley said.

Only about 8 percent of the 68,400 Marshallese are Catholic.

On some of the outlying atolls and islands, there may be perhaps 300 to 500 people with an even smaller number of Catholics among them. Priests visit the outlying communities only occasionally, leaving lay leaders to minister to the Catholics who reside there, Suley said.

The Suleys found the island nation, with a total land area of about 70 square miles spread over 750,000 square miles, to be extremely poor. People make their living from fishing and producing crafts for the tourists who visit, Suley said.

Majuro, the capital and a city of about 25,000 people, has few amenities. Barely above sea level, Majuro Atoll is just a few blocks wide even though it is about 25 miles long. “The closest atoll is three hours away by boat,” Suley said.

The people, Suley said, were gracious and celebrated the presence of the Americans each evening with good food and fellowship. On the final night, the Marshallese threw their American guests a four-hour party.

“They made us gifts, handmade crafts,” he said

“They rarely have visitors like ourselves,” Suley added. “But as one priest said, ‘We’re not just a dot in the Pacific Ocean.’”

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