During late August and early September, the Superior General, Ronald D. WITHERUP, pss, visited the Archdiocese of Papeete (Tahiti) in French Polynesia in order to preach a retreat for the seminarians and some priests of the diocese. Most Rev. Hubert COPPENRATH, Archbishop Emeritus, also attended the retreat, which was held in the diocesan retreat house, La Tibériade, on "La Presque Isle" of the island of Tahiti.
The rector of the major seminary of Notre-Dame de la Pentecôte is Sulpician Father Claude JOUNEAU, pss, who is in his sixth year as superior of the seminary. Although Tahiti is a French territory, it is unusual for the Sulpicians to be directly involved in ministry there. But the Society of Saint Sulpice attempts to be of service to dioceses for the ministry of priestly formation wherever there is a need.
When Archbishop Coppenrath contacted the French Province of Sulpicians in the search for a rector, Father Jouneau graciously accepted his invitation with the Province’s blessing. He had already served in a missionary capacity for many years in Burkina Faso where he had been a faculty member of the major seminary years ago.
The Archdiocese of Papeete and its suffragan see in the Marquises Islands comprise all of French Polynesia, which is nearly the size of Europe. The islands are spread far and wide in the South Pacific, and include the Australes, the Gambier Islands, the Marquises, the Society Islands, and numerous individual atolls and islands. Christianity first arrived there through the ministry of the Protestant London Missionary Society in the early nineteenth century, but they were closely followed by the first Catholic missionaries who arrived in the 1830s and became well established in the Gambier Islands. The story of this incredible mission has been recounted anew in the book, La Mission du Bout du Monde (Mission to the End of the Earth) by Jean-Paul DELBOS (3d expanded ed.; Editions Univers Polynésiens, 2011), which cites extensively the journal of one of the early missionaries.
During his three-week stay in the islands, Father Witherup was able to go to the Gambier Islands and see firsthand the churches founded by those early missionaries who were from the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (the “Picpus” Fathers from Paris) and who still have a presence in the islands. The Archdiocese is currently completing a restoration of its historic Cathedral of Saint-Michel in Mangareva, the central island of the Gambiers.
The Cathedral will be re-inaugurated on 3 December 2011, the culmination of the extensive renovations funded primarily by donations. By island standards the cathedral, as well as several other churches, is huge, given the small population of the Gambier Islands today. But in the nineteenth century, the islands were home to thousands of indigenous peoples who had converted to Catholicism.
As elsewhere in the Catholic Church, the islands lack sufficient priestly vocations. Notre Dame de la Pentecôte Seminary currently has only six seminarians this year (in a house built for twenty), two of whom are in third theology. Father Witherup was nonetheless impressed with the quality of the seminarians and their program of formation. Most of the priest faculty members, who also serve in local parishes, have been trained at prestigious universities in Rome. Yet resources in the islands are rather scarce.
Thus, Father Jouneau invites outside resource persons to come to Papeete, especially to preach the retreat that opens the school year. One is immediately struck by the faithful and enthusiastic commitment of the Catholics on the islands. Their liturgies are filled with beautiful polyphonic hymns that, even in the smallest of communities, fill the churches with the praise of God. Ubiquitous fresh flower arrangements also perfume the atmosphere of every church and show honor to the Eucharist and to the Virgin Mary, whose devotion is particularly strong in Polynesian culture.
The Society of Saint Sulpice is honored to participate in a modest way in promoting the faith in French Polynesia through the formation of priests. The Society is also proud of our confrere, Father JOUNEAU, and all that he has accomplished in his solitary mission “to the end of the earth”. May the Lord abundantly bless the Church in Papeete and French Polynesia, and may the Virgin Mary watch over, guide and protect all the faithful of the islands!