A few years ago, during a visit by a U.S. Congressional Delegation, I asked one of the Members what impressed him the most about Guam. Without hesitation, and with deep sincerity, he said: "Its schools and churches. Keep them filled and everything else follows." At dinner that evening, he followed up on our earlier discussion with a query of his own: how did the Catholic Church become so dominant and prominent on Guam?
I told him that considering the intense hostility that prevailed during the early years of the Spanish administration of the Marianas, it is a wonder indeed that the Catholic Church managed to establish a foundation at all, much less grow to become what it is today. Magellan's heavy handed treatment of the ancient Chamorros in 1521 was not an isolated incident. In the decades that followed, many ships stopped on Guam: Spanish, Dutch, and English, and their crew considered the natives heathens and treated them disdainfully. By the time the first Catholic Mission was established in 1668, the Chamorros had had many opportunities to witness first-hand the arrogance and brutal ways of the Europeans. Clash was inevitable between the heathens in the Marianas and the "uncivlized" Christians from Europe.
For almost a quarter of a century, between 1671 and 1695, a state of conflict existed in the Marianas. Because the Crown was inseparable from the Cross in those days, the Spanish Jesuit missionaries frequently found themselves in the cross-fire. Their courage, devotion to their cause, and their advocacy of native grievances against the Crown was not lost on the native population; and, their apparent disregard for their own safety in carrying out their missionary work among the Chamorros led to the martyrdom of ten priests and two brothers in a span of fifteen years.
For their part, the Chamorros fought hard and bravely with spears, slings, and stones but finally succumbed to a smaller force with bows and arrows, supported by muskets and gunfire from ships. Then came two epidemics of European diseases for which there was no immunity among the Chamorros: influenza in 1688 and smallpox in 1700. By 1710, the Chamorro population was reduced to about four thousand, roughly about ten percent of what it was estimated to be before the Chamorro wars started.
For the next three quarters of a century, the Jesuit Missionaries built Guam's first churches and schools. Their willingness to work hard won them a special place in the hearts of the native population during the 100 years of missionary service in the Marianas.
In turn, the Chamorros embraced Catholicism with a passion which has remained unabated for centuries. The most recent manifestation of this took place following World War II when the churches of Guam were almost totally destroyed. Using as a symbol a bird from Egyptian mythology that consumed itself by fire after 500 years and rose renewed from its ashes, Bishop Baumgartner rallied the faithful with these words: The Phoenix rises.
And rose it did, village by village, year by year, until all members of the faith had a house of God within walking distance of their homes. The centerpiece of the rebuilding campaign was the construction of a magnificent Cathedral in Agana, the capital of Guam, which is the oldest American city in the Pacific Basin. In commenting about the successful rebuilding and expanding of the Church in the Marianas, Bishop Baumgartner thanked God for giving the mission a San Vitores to start the work during the Spanish administration; a Father Palomo to see the Church through the difficult days readjusting to the American occupation at the turn of the century, and a Father Duenas to set a martyr's example during the Japanese occupation.
The next day, when we emerged from the Guam Legislature building, my friend was overwhelmed by the size of the Cathedral vis-a-vis the Guam Legislature. Shaking his head, he said, "don't you guys on Guam understand that one of the basic tenets of the U.S. Constitution is the separation of Church and State?". I pointed out to him that the Church was separated from the Legislature by a street. As though he anticipated the answer, his immediate response was, "I know that, Ben, but did you really have to name the street Chalan Santo Papa with a statue of the Pope IN THE MIDDLE OF IT?"
As stared at me mischievously waiting for an answer, I gave him the best Guam answer I could muster: "David, would you like to have lunch with me at a Chamorro restaurant?"