Terry Witherell

On our recent visit to White River Reservation in Arizona, we recalled the words of Pope Francis. In his exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis reflected on the cultural diversity of the Church. “In these first two Christian millennia, countless peoples have received the grace of faith, brought it to flower in their daily lives and handed it on in the language of their own culture... The history of the Church shows that Christianity does not have simply one cultural expression.”

We had the chance to experience a different cultural expression of the Church when we visited White River, an Apache reservation four hours east of Phoenix. Though it’s in Arizona, it is part of the diocese of Gallup. Catholic Extension has been providing support to the reservation for over 15 years.

We went to Mass at St. Francis Church in White River. The church was packed, which is always a wonderful thing to see. We were reminded that no matter where you find yourself, the Mass, like the Church, is universal. Yet the local culture is also part of the Mass, as well. It shows the beauty of the people who have come to celebrate the Eucharist.

Mass at St. Francis Church in White River

Fr. Ed Fronske was the celebrant of the Mass. “Fr. Eddie”, as he is known by his parishioners, is a Franciscan priest who has been serving on the reservation for thirty years.  He says that he came to the reservation because he knew that he “could learn from the Apaches, especially about finding God in nature. And I wanted to share what I could in terms of the Catholic Church.”

At the start of the Mass, there was a procession that involved native drums, as well as singing. Everyone was involved in the worship. There was also a baptism during the Mass. The godfather, an uncle of the baby being baptized, was visibly moved during the baptism. We had a chance to talk to him afterwards. He is a native of the reservation, but no longer lives there because he serves in the military now. He said that coming back to the reservation and to St. Francis Church is important, because it is where his family is; and family is very important to the Apache people.

Fr. Eddie baptizes the newest member of the Church

After Mass we followed Fr. Eddie as he drove over an hour to St. Catherine’s in Cibecue, another of the three churches on the reservation that he pastors, so that he could celebrate Mass there, too.

St. Catherine Church, Cibecue, also supported by Catholic Extension

Norma, a parishioner of St. Catherine’s whom we talked to after Mass, agreed about the importance of family. She said that they need to continue to have a church where she can take her family. Norma said that her grandchildren have learned to pray the rosary; but they have their own traditional prayers, as well. She said, “We put the two together, and my family is stronger because of it, spiritually.”

We asked Norma why it was important to have some of her Apache culture as part of the Church. She told us, “It’s me. It’s who I am. It’s how I communicate with God. It makes me closer to Him.”

Norma, a parishioner at St. Catherine

Catholic Extension is blessed to be able to help support people in the mission dioceses, as they grow as Catholics; and, as Pope Francis says, “hand on their faith in the language of their own culture.”