My wife and I recently took a relaxing vacation in Hawaii on the island of Maui. On our first Sunday there we found a local Catholic parish – St. Theresa. Upon entering the Mass, we learned that the Bishop of Honolulu announced that day (July 9th) Catholics in the islands were commemorating the 190th anniversary of the Catholic Church in Hawaii. It was 190 years since the first Mass took place on the islands.
In many ways the Church in Hawaii represents a microcosm of the faith – at first, it experiences persecution, than while the Church’s message is embraced, the message will then be pitted against a rival idea. This competing idea being - fulfillment comes from acquiring material possessions in this world, and not from a religious institution. In other words, the Hawaii experience reveals the hidden, yet genuine battle of the Church vs. the pop culture.
We had local Hawaiian guides directing us on one particular excursion. With an inquisitive mind, I like to ask a lot of questions and read the local writings to see if there is any substance to a unique story.
I learned Catholicism had a trying start in Hawaii and actually faced daunting persecution. To get a better perspective, we have to back up to see the historical soil in which that Church came about in Hawaii.
The Hawaiian Islands were first settled by inhabitants of the Polynesia islands, later the Samoa Islands, and then a cluster group from Fiji and Solomon Islands in what is known as modern day Melanesia islands. All these clusters of island people brought with them their various indigenous religious beliefs and practices. Thus, when Hawaii was settled from 800 to 1300, Hawaii incorporated this smorgasbord of religious beliefs into a multi-pronged polytheistic system of religion that centered on a variety of gods, goddesses, and numerous beliefs systems. The gods were a part of everyday life from building a house, making a canoe, cultivating the land, fishing, guiding the weather, the tides, etc.
As is typically the case when various polytheistic groups are combined, it creates confusion and frustration on knowing which god is doing what. Therefore, when Christianity came to Hawaii preaching monotheism (1 God) it was first meant with shock, then interest.
Christianity first arrived in Hawaii in 1820 under the banner of Congregationalist Protestants from New England. It wasn’t long that Hawaiian officials were quick to ditch their polytheistic religion for monotheistic Christianity. In April 1824, the queen regent Kaahumanu publicly acknowledged her embrace of Congregationalist Protestant Christianity. She received baptism on December 5, 1825.
Protestantism was spreading on the islands when the first Catholic priests stepped foot on Honolulu in July of 1827, celebrating the first Mass on Hawaiian soil on July 14, 1827. The first Catholic baptism took place on November 30, 1827. Among the earliest converts were Chief Boki and his wife, Kuini Liliha, the royally-appointed governors of the island of Oahu. Native Hawaiian converts enthusiastically embraced the faith, spirituality, rites of worship and prayer practices of the Catholic Church.
However, the Protestant Congregationalist missionaries persuaded Kaahumanu that Catholicism should be banned from Hawaii. In 1830, Kaahumanu signed legislation that forbade Catholic teachings and threatened to deport any foreigners who taught Catholic doctrine. She had the Catholic priests deported and churches shut down. As the Hawaiian historical society indicates, “Under pressure by American Protestant missionaries, who considered Catholic doctrine a damning religious error, Kamehameha III twice expelled the Catholics.” During this time, Catholicism had to go undergrown in which Mass was performed in a clandestine manner. Some Hawaiian Catholics managed to conceal their faith. Others were arrested, beaten, imprisoned, and forced into hard labor. This bit of persecution went on until French ambassadors convinced King Kamehameha III to allow Catholicism to be legal (here and here).
Fearing an assault on his kingdom for its persecution of Catholics, Kamehameha III issued the Edict of Toleration on 17 June 1839. The document contained the following proclamation:
"That the Catholic worship be declared free, throughout all the dominions subject to the king of the Sandwich Islands; the members of this religious faith shall enjoy in them the privileges granted to Protestants."As an act of reconciliation, Kamehameha III donated land in Hawaii to the Catholic Church for the construction of their first permanent church.
Just when the Church began to spread, a new rival idea was beginning to cast its shadow on the islands. As Hawaii began to draw attention in the early 20th century as an attractive tourist destination, another religion began to sprout up in the islands from the mainland – Consumerism. Now, to this day consumerism is deeply rooted in Hawaii. But, while consumerism means development and infrastructure advancement, many Hawaiians have turned back to that grand Catholic idea, that when it comes to material possessions – less is more. Despite what skeptics think, the idea to limit possessions was not some novel invention from the Church in order to control people. Rather, the Church is simply drawing of the teaching of Jesus when he said, "Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven" (Matthew 6:19-20, see also Matthew 19:21, Mark 4:19, 1Timothy 6:9-10).
Our tour guide was born and raised in Maui his whole life so he is familiar with the traditional Hawaiian way of life – dating back to when Christianity first came to the islands. Because of tourism and consumerism the last 50 years, the islands have seen a boom in growth and development. Now, this has been a positive for the islands, but the drawback is that the island Oahu has become overly urban, consumeristic and has lost that picturesque paradise feel for the busy city feel. In other words, being in Honolulu went from being in a tropical paradise akin to Fiji to now being in a big city with nice weather – akin to Los Angeles. The islands of Hawaii, Maui, Lanai, and Kauai have still maintained their natural, rural paradise-like environment and have resisted over development. In fact, as my uber driver informed me, many developers from California come to Maui and want to create grand building projects only to learn that the local government will rarely allow new construction to come in. In certain parts of the island, if there is new construction the building can’t exceed two stories. This way, high-rise condos can’t grow to compete over who will get the best view of the ocean. The people of Maui have learned that consumerism is good, but too much of it will eventually turn a quiet, peaceful oasis into a materialistic wasteland.
Deep down we all know this. We go to Maui to get away from all this “stuff”, why would we want to bring the same “stuff” we wanted to get away from with us on our vacation getaway? People come to Hawaii to get away from the city, the suburbs, the congestion, the consumerism. Yes, while it may be nice to see a Target, Starbucks, and Home Depot in Maui, people want to see palm trees, mountains, and a boutique café along a clean beach. The whole point people go there is so they can leave that city world behind and the consumerism that comes with it.
This is an idea that Catholicism brought to the world, and the people of Maui have fully embraced it. Namely, that consumerism is good in moderation, but an overuse of it will destroy a person and a region. As an old priest told me, “The things of this world (consumerism) are fine just so long as you channel them correctly and don’t go overboard on them.” The problem arises if you keep going to these “things” in an obsessive fashion in order to find comfort in them. If you rely on material possessions or man-made experiences to bring you comfort, it may work for a little while, but it will never bring you ultimate happiness. Why won’t it work? Because only God will make you happy. As St. Augustine famously said, “Our hearts are restless until they rest with thee.” But, only going to the things of this world, will make you constantly restless and yearning. At this point, you’d only find half of Augustine’s quote. It reminds me of that U2 song, “I have climbed the highest mountain. I have run through the fields…I have run, I have crawled. I have scaled these city walls, but I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” This song paints a picture of a person who is not complete precisely because he is trying to find fulfillment in mad-made ideas. If someone only turns to consumerism, they’ll be endlessly seeking but never grasping at ultimate satisfaction. The reason is because consumerism and the messaging in the pop-culture acts as a God-substitute. All God substitutes will eventually fail and turn a person into a depressed version of themselves.
No wonder the rich nations all have a higher depression and suicide rate than the poorer nations. You’d think it be the opposite, that poor people would have a higher depression rate. Yet, studies consistently show that the materialistic elite are more depressed and more suicidal. The reason is because the “things” of this world, don’t bring them happiness, they only make them miserable addicts. As the famous Catholic writer G.K Chesterton said about the uber rich, “To be clever enough to get all that money one must be stupid enough to want it.”
The people of the Hawaiian Islands know they want to avoid selling out to money and consumerism. That is why so many of them chant “keep Hawaii beautiful.” And the “beautiful” they are talking about holds a limit on consumerism. Much like that recent George Clooney movie, The Descendants, people who live in paradise realize that building developments are good – but needs to be balanced with a modest detached way of life. With this, Hawaiians have tapped into a deep Catholic teaching. That is, to be happiest, one needs to detach themselves from the things of this world. The Catholic saints, priests, and religious sisters have taken a vow of poverty. They have completely removed themselves from the consumerism trap, thus they are the most fulfilled. The Catholic idea that detachment from possessions, toys, money will bring peace is the mantra of the people of Maui. Sadly, Oahu has lost this idea and bowed down to the consumerism god, and those that live there are regretting this decision. The Church throughout the islands of Hawaii have grown because her message resonates with the people there. The Church is a paradise of oasis for those stuck in the consumerism trap. Even more, the Church is especially a paradise in the real sense when you’re vacationing in Maui.
190 years ago Catholic missionaries proclaimed the gospel in Hawaii. These missionaries did what they were instructed to do – “go make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). They truly planted a paradise when they brought the Church to Hawaii.