A FAITHFUL WITNESS
It is said that Arctic is not for everybody and, on contrary to God, who is boundlessly merciful, it does not forgive mistakes. Anna Buda talks to Fr. Marcin Rumik- a priest of the archdiocese of Częstochowa, who starts the 5th year of his pastoral ministry as a missionary in Rankin Inlet in the diocese Churchill-Hudson Bay in northern Canada
ANNA BUDA: - What is the North like?
FR. MARCIN RUMIK: - It is still wild and severe, but, first of all, very cold. The North is inhabited by polar bears, seals, foxes and arctic wolves, but what is the most important – the Inuits – people who have perfectly become used to the conditions here.
- What is life in Arctic like?
- In order to understand what the everyday life is like here, we should separate life in a town or a village from the life outside them. To illustrate it well, we must say that on the territory of Nunavut – an arctic part of Canada people live in villages which are completely cut off from the world. They are not connected with any roads or no railway reaches there. These are such small islands, oasis of population in the middle of the ice desert. Villages are self-efficient, each of them has got its generator of electricity, and telecommunication is provided by the satellite. Besides that, these are isolated places, life here does not diverge from standards of any other place in Canada. Certainly, there is no cinema here, or big shopping centres. There are two shops, a post office, a school and a church – this is the minimum which is sufficient to survive. However, I must say that the era of igloos and dog sledding has gone away forgotten. Civilization has arrived also here: now the Inuits live in normal houses and travel by snowmobiles. In order to live in a village, one does not need any survival skills – warmed houses protect from low temperatures and the darkness of the polar night is brightened by electric lights.
Whereas everything looks completely different if we want to leave a village, for example, to go hunting or to go to another village by a snowmobile. We then clash with a really severe and wide Arctic: temperatures below -70°C; the weather which can change within a few minutes; snow storms – even 6-, 7 days, during which nothing is visible. Somebody who goes hunting for a few hours, always takes a sleigh with necessary things, which would allow him to survive in the wild for the minimum few days.
- How old is the Church in this part of the globe and how is it organized?
- The Church in Arctic is relatively young. In 2012 we celebrated the 100th anniversary of the first catholic mission in the far North, but we should remember that the process of creating others even lasted 40 years. So, faith reached to some parts of Arctic nearly 60-70 years ago. Most of the territory Nunavut is included in the borders of the diocese Churchill-Hudson Bay, which makes it one of the biggest diocese on earth. Here the population is about 30 thousand from which bout 12 thousand are Catholics. In particular villages there are 17 missions in which only 8 priests work.
- What is the Eskimos’ faith like? Are they fervent believers?
- Eskimos or the Inuits – the latter form is more correct – are, first of all, very fervent believers. They do not doubt that the spiritual world is a real world. When the first missionaries arrived at these lands, they received faith in Jesus Christ. Certainly, it did not happen at once. At present the definite majority of them inhabiting Arctic are the Christians. Whereas their faith is still very fresh and requires a suitable care and strengthening. Therefore, an important part of pastoral ministry here are pre-sacramental catechesis. We also try to form parish leaders in a suitable way, because due to a small number of priests in some villages, they take on responsibility for the local community. Unfortunately, a priest reaches to some missions only 3-4 times a year.
- What language does priest speak every day?
- The generally used languages are English and inukitut. Since I arrived here I have celebrate Eucharist in these two languages.
- What are the biggest challenges in the missionary work?
- The biggest challenge is facing problems which touch the local inhabitants, and with which they are helpless. Lack of work, deep addictions to drugs and alcohol – despite the existing prohibition, and also a drastically rising number of suicides, especially among the young. I remember that for the first half a year of my stay in Rankin Inlet even 5 people committed suicide, including two 17-year-olds who shot themselves a week after each other. It was a difficult experience for me, considering the fact that a priest remains very close to a family at such moments. After some time a priest goes to a suicide’s house and then there is a prayer in a morgue and a funeral. All this is not easy to experience. Only 4 years of my stay in the North in the very Rankin Inlet there were about 20 suicides.
- Why does it happen so?
- Maybe there is no answer to this question. It might seem – and this is often the first association – that it is the polar night and the lack of light, whereas statistics show that most people commit suicide not in winter but in spring and autumn – when there is enough light. To a large extent, it is inability to perceive perspectives for a better tomorrow, but these are just my divagations.
- Does it mean that the Inuits do not see the sense of life or do not feel any joy about it, if the only solution they consider is suicide?
- On contrary, the Inuits are people who have a rich history and culture. They can be happy about every day. A great value for them is also a family. They are grateful and happy for receiving every new-born life. Setting up their families (mostly of many children) is supported by the climate in which they live. They are surrounded by a wonderful nature, intact land and clean lakes and rivers. It cannot be said, or it would be false to say that living in the North is a dull waiting till death will free us from life difficulties. Life here, despite not being easy, belongs to the easiest ones, is unusually beautiful and gives a lot of occasions to realize oneself.
- Priest has mentioned families with many children. Four, five children is a norm?
- When you asked me the question, an event came to my mind, which took place soon after my arrival at the North. I arrived there in order to visit the neighbouring mission. I was picked up from the airport by the local leader. We were going from the airport, and because it is a bit far from a village, we started a longer talk. At one moment I asked him: ‘How many children do you have?’. He started thinking and counting. He was murmuring something, and looked at me, saying with sincerity in his eyes: ‘Father, you would have to ask my wife, as I do not exactly know’. Another situation has taken place recently. I was invited for a jubilee of the 50th anniversary of wedding. During dinner I asked jubilarians how big their family was. They answered that they had 69 grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It may not be a direct answer to Your question, but it illustrates the reality quite well.
- Does work on missions give Priest a sense of satisfaction?
- I am very glad with a possibility of doing pastoral ministry nearly at the end of the world. People here are exceptionally friendly, first of all, they perceive that somebody is here for them and they can appreciate it. What gives them a lot of joy is a prayer for those who ask for it. Awareness of the fact that if it was not for my presence here, inhabitants would not even have a possibility to participate in the Holy Mass on Sunday, gives me strength to overcome difficulties which appear. Besides that work on missions is a direct meeting with a man. It is not an anonymous pastoral ministry and this is the most beautiful.
- As Priest has already mentioned, difficulties also appear. What are they?
- The hardest ones to overcome is experiencing isolation and loneliness. 24 hours for nearly 365 days in a year, and also with the same people and in the same place – is nearly a big challenge! But there is also great satisfaction. Living in extremely difficult climatic conditions, in isolation from the civilized world, every day I look at a mirror and repeat to myself: ‘Marcin, there is joy, you give advice’.
- Finally, could you tell us, what to wish Priest Missionary in the far and cold Arctic?
- That during my journeys through iced ocean or tundra covered with snow, my Angel the Guard would not even think of leaving me. And a bit more seriously – that I would have enough strength to accompany people as a faithful witness of God’s love to a man.