Alive in Christ 

Patrick Tam | Director Adult Faith Formation | Diocese of Fairbanks

In 2016 Pope Francis asked the church to start a process of reflection and discussion to listen to the concerns, hopes, and desires of young people.  In 2018 bishops around the world invited young people to listening sessions.  And in 2019 Pope Francis wrote a letter called Christus Vivit (Christ Is Alive!) calling the church to become more welcoming to young people.”  Pope Francis reminded young people that God loves them, that Jesus saves and suffers with them, and that Christ is alive and present in their lives.

Inspired by Pope Francis’ letter, the bishops of the United States started a process of listening to young people in our country.  Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these listening sessions were originally limited to Zoom meetings of young adults from many different cultural groups.  But as the pandemic subsided, an in-person gathering in Chicago in 2022 was planned as the culminating step of this long process of listening to young people in the church.

Having participated in several of the Zoom meetings, I was asked to gather Alaskan Native young adults to participate in the national multicultural gathering.  The “Alive in Christ: Young, Diverse, Prophetic Voices Journeying Together" gathering convened about 300 Catholic ministry leaders, young adults and bishops from dioceses and parishes around the country in Chicago on June 23-26.  The event was hosted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and led by several USCCB secretariats. 

The USCCB made an extra effort to invite the participation of Alaskan Native young adult Catholics.  Our group of 10 Yup’ik participants came from several villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Region, including Emmonak, Hooper Bay, Chefornak, and Kotlik.  The event organizers awarded generous scholarships to the group to cover the cost of conference fees and room and board.  Our Fairbanks Diocese covered the cost of airfares.  Two women in the group currently live and work in Anchorage.  After some discussion with Daughter of Charity Sister Frances Vista, the director of Native Ministry for the Anchorage-Juneau Archdiocese, she agreed that her office could cover the cost of travel for the two Yup’ik women. 

Sr. Frances and I also attended the conference and served as unofficial chaperones.  For most of the young people in the group, this was their first trip outside of Alaska.  Bishop Chad Zielinski, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, had an active part in the gathering and encouraged us at every opportunity.  We also had the wisdom and guidance of Yup’ik elder Nita Rearden, originally from Kotlik.  She has been a consultant for the Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.

The conference consisted of three and a half days filled with plenary sessions, keynote speakers, small breakout groups, and daily Eucharistic liturgies lead by various cultural groups.  Our group was a bit surprised when we were asked take an active role in the opening Mass.   Although we were not given much time for preparation, every one of our Yup’k participants took roles in the Mass as lectors, singers, servers, and bringers of the offertory gifts.  Elder Nita Rearden and young adult Stephen Kelly used the tundra ayuk (Labrador tea) as a prayerful blessing like smudging ahead of the opening procession. Waylon Buckles from Chefornak brought beautiful hand-woven baskets from his home to be displayed near the altar while Nita added pictures of elders and ancestors.  It was a moment of pride to see our Yup’ik young adult Catholics in the spotlight.

We had arrived in Chicago a day early to give ourselves a chance to rest after the long flights from “the bush.”  The heat, 3-hour time difference, urban noise, crowds, and change of food were challenging to our group.  Another challenge for the young adults was participating in discussions where people spoke quickly and used a lot of “churchy” language.  Both the gifts and the difficulties of cross-cultural communication were obvious.  Still, it was the small informal one-on-one interactions at meals or breaks where our young people were able to open up windows to their Yup’ik world—the realities of rural village life, the spiritual depths of Yup’ik culture, the daily struggles of young adults, and the wonders of subsistence activities.  At many meals, people from large cities were amazed listening to a Yup’ik young man or woman talking about hunting moose or gathering berries or dancing in Curukaq (Potlatch).

The topics discussed in breakout groups included: Accompanying Young Disciples, Communicating the Gospel, Fostering Healing and Peace, Journeying Through Identity and Morality, Nurturing Diverse Families, Pathways for Young Protagonists, Developing Vibrant Ministries, Diversity and Sacred Spaces, Encouraging Gods Call, Fostering Important Conversations, and Overcoming Division with Diversity, Marriage and Parenting.  There were also sessions with Action Planning Groups on Active Inclusion, Embracing Historical Memory, Formation Possibilities, Practicing Accompaniment, and Diversity and Giftedness.  The intention is to continue the process with reflection on how to move from discussion to action, from a national gathering to dioceses and parishes. 

The gathering in Chicago was not an easy journey for everyone in the group.  But something extraordinary did take place.  Yup’ik young people were given a place at the table of a national forum and their voices were heard.  At the same time, their own imaginations were stretched by the encounter with other cultures, other forms of prayer, and other ways of living out the Gospel.  On our last evening together, Bishop Chad invited our group out to dinner. 

At table we had a chance to share our experiences and debrief.  Jessica Hunt took notes on the sharing, and she says, “Most of the Alaskan members expressed their appreciation for connectedness with people of other cultures as well as people within our group.”  About a week after our return, I emailed our group to see if people had any more reflections on their experience.  Jessica shared this insight, “Attending the conference brought to light the dire need we, as young Catholic Christians, have to step up, see the concerns of our people and take action in recognizing Jesus within us. If our people dont claim Jesus within our hearts, then devastation, hurt, and pain will continue to guide our culture and continue to lead our people through more hard times. Hardship will never be avoided but with Jesus it can be managed in a way that brings glory to God.”