Wake Island: The Challenges of Celebrating Mass on a Military Base

Wake Island is a coral atoll located in the western Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Guam. While its most notable mention in history books comes from its role in World War II, the island also offers unique challenges and scenarios for the Catholic Church, especially when it comes to celebrating Mass. Given its military context, Wake Island presents logistical, theological, and cultural concerns for Catholics stationed there. In this article, we will explore some fun but enlightening facts about the intricacies of practicing Catholicism on Wake Island.

The Historical Context: The Church in the Midst of War

Before diving into the challenges of celebrating Mass, it’s important to note the island’s historical context. Wake Island was a focal point during WWII, and Catholicism has long had a presence in military conflict. This stems from the Church’s teaching on “just war,” a doctrine which delineates under what conditions it is morally acceptable to wage war. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The strict conditions for legitimate defense by military force require rigorous consideration” (CCC 2309).

Fact 1: Limited Availability of Priests

One of the most significant challenges of practicing Catholicism on Wake Island is the limited availability of priests. Due to the small population and military nature of the base, there isn’t a permanent chaplain stationed on the island. In this sense, Wake Island encapsulates the larger issue of a shortage of Catholic chaplains in the military.

Theological Significance

The sacraments are integral to Catholic life. The Eucharist, particularly, is described as the “source and summit of the Christian life” (CCC 1324). With the absence of a priest, the community loses access to many sacraments, most notably the Eucharist during Mass. This raises a challenging question: how do Catholics stationed on Wake Island fulfill their Sunday obligation?

The “Sunday Obligation”

The Catechism states, “The Sunday Eucharist is the foundation and confirmation of all Christian practice. For this reason, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Eucharist on days of obligation” (CCC 2181). However, the Church also acknowledges the limitations due to genuine circumstances and recommends spiritual practices in lieu of Sunday Mass, such as prayer, reading Scripture, and acts of charity.

Fact 2: The Use of Makeshift Altars

Due to the unique conditions on Wake Island, Mass, when it does occur, often makes use of makeshift altars. This reflects the early Christian tradition of celebrating Mass in catacombs or homes.

Theological Significance

The use of makeshift altars resonates with the essence of the Catholic Mass, which transcends time and space. The Church teaches that Christ is made truly present in the Eucharist, regardless of the grandiosity of the altar. “The mode of Christ’s presence under the Eucharistic species is unique” (CCC 1374).

Altars and Sacredness

While any dignified setting can serve for the Mass, Catholic tradition and Canon Law have guidelines for what constitutes a fitting altar. The Church emphasizes the sacredness of the altar, as it is the place “where the sacrifice of the Cross is made present” (CCC 1182).

Fact 3: Interfaith Aspects in a Military Setting

Wake Island’s military setting is religiously diverse. For practical reasons, the chapel on base is often a shared space among various religious groups.

Theological Significance

The Catholic Church supports interreligious dialogue and respect for other faiths, as stated in Vatican II’s “Nostra Aetate”: “The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions.” However, the sharing of sacred space does present a theological challenge.

“Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi”

The phrase “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi” encapsulates the idea that the way we pray shapes what we believe. While the use of shared space is often a logistical necessity, care must be taken to maintain the integrity of the Catholic liturgy, ensuring that it remains in line with the official teachings of the Church.

Fact 4: The Local Community

Lastly, the local community on Wake Island, though small, offers a unique dynamic to the Catholic Church on base. The community primarily consists of military personnel and contractors who have temporary placements.

Theological Significance

Catholic Social Teaching emphasizes the importance of community in fulfilling the Church’s mission. In a setting like Wake Island, where deployments are often of limited duration, the community’s transient nature can both challenge and invigorate religious practice.

Building the Church in Miniature

The community becomes a sort of “Domestic Church,” echoing the words of St. John Paul II, who described the family as the Domestic Church where one “learns endurance and the joy of work, fraternal love, generous—even repeated—forgiveness, and above all divine worship in prayer and the offering of one’s life” (Familiaris Consortio, 21).

Wake Island may be a small and often-overlooked place, but the Catholic experience there reflects broader challenges and triumphs in the practice of the faith. From the importance of sacraments and the ingenuity of makeshift altars to the richness and challenges of interfaith settings and the vibrancy of a transient community, Wake Island offers a microcosm of the Catholic Church’s adaptability and eternal relevance.

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Note: While content aims to align with Catholic teachings, any inconsistencies or errors are unintended. For precise understanding, always refer to authoritative sources like the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Always double-check any quotes for word-for-word accuracy with the Bible or the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

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