WASHINGTON – At its spring assembly last week, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to support the creation of a comprehensive pastoral plan for Native American Catholic ministry.
“There is currently no guide for the Catholic Church in the United States in approaching, understanding and promoting Native Catholic ministry,” said Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, chief of the American Bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.
Bishop Wall described in his June 17 presentation to the Spring Virtual Assembly of Bishops a plan for better inculturation of the Catholic faith, recognition of Native American ministry and spirituality, and the needs of Native American communities. He noted that the pastoral plan would also address lingering justice and reconciliation issues regarding historic issues such as Catholic residential schools that were part of efforts to assimilate and Americanize Native American children, often through coercion.
Many Catholic Archbishops and Bishops have spoken strongly in favor of developing a pastoral plan, which would recognize the Church’s own failures towards Native Americans and create a comprehensive unified model for the Catholic Church to heal the present. and the future, and even more broadly to help restore Church’s own knowledge of Native American roots.
“The pastoral plan will help reassure native Catholics that their ministry has a high priority in the Universal Church,” Bishop Wall, whose flock in the Diocese of Gallup includes the Navajo, Zuni, and American bishops, told US bishops. Hopi, Apache and Pueblo.
The proposed pastoral plan emerged from a listening session in 2018 with national Native American Catholic organizations, leaders of dioceses with a large Native Catholic population, and the Office of Black and Indian Missions. The sessions, Bishop Wall noted, made it clear that Native American Catholics wanted their voices to be better heard within the Church.
âThe last time we had a pastoral plan [for Native American ministry] was 1977. That was a long time ago and a lot has happened since, âsaid Bishop Wall, acknowledging the evolving understanding of racism, the canonization of the first indigenous saint in North America, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha of the Mohawk people, and new approaches to social justice in Native American communities.
The American bishops voted 223-6 to approve the development of the comprehensive pastoral plan. Among the Catholic bishops and archbishops expressing strong support were the chairman of the USCCB pro-life committee, Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, Archbishop Paul Etienne of Seattle, Archbishop Bernard Hebda of St Paul-Minneapolis and Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix.
“This proposal is very timely and essential,” said Bishop Etienne.
The development of the American bishops’ pastoral plan has the potential to respond to the calls of the Holy Father, from Saint John Paul II to Pope Francis, for the Catholic Church to challenge colonialism and more fully embrace Indigenous peoples and their cultures.
In 1984, Pope Saint John Paul II declared, âChrist, in the members of his Body, is himself Indianâ and declared that the Church desires to help people of all cultures âto draw from their own living tradition original expressions of life, of celebration and Christian thought âand affirmed their importance to the church.
“The renewal of Indian culture will be a renewal of those true values ââwhich they have inherited and which are purified and ennobled by the Revelation of Jesus Christ”, he declared.
Heal the present
The Comprehensive Pastoral Plan should provide American dioceses with a model for establishing Native American ministry both inside reservations, but especially outside reservations, where more than two-thirds of Native Americans live.
Robert Barbry II, executive director of the Tekakwitha Conference, a close associate of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops‘ subcommittee on Native American Indian affairs, told the Register he understands the pastoral plan could pass the introduction or the first chapter to deal with the various injustices committed. to Aboriginals over the centuries.
Barbry said that perceptions that the Church is silent about the residential school era, the legacy of Christopher Columbus, and the “Doctrine of Discovery” (which implies that the U.S. government is using 15th-century papal documents to justify the extinction of indigenous sovereignty and title to their lands) pose “obstacles to fruitful evangelization.”
âThis pastoral plan is probably the first national effort to really begin to address many of these ongoing concerns,â said Barbry.
American bishops have spoken strongly in terms of redressing the wrongs against Native Americans caused both directly or indirectly by the role of the Catholic Church in European colonialism, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Bishop Wall said the proposed pastoral plan for Catholic Native American ministry would also force U.S. Catholic bishops to tackle Church involvement head-on in residential schools, where the U.S. government effectively suppressed cultures. , Native American languages ââand identities and has ushered in catastrophic intergenerational effects on Native American families to the present day.
The pastoral vote came just weeks after the unmarked and possibly undocumented mass graves of 215 children were rediscovered on the grounds of the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School, which closed in 1978 in the Canadian province of British Columbia. Residential schools, whose mission was similar to that of American residential schools, have come under intense scrutiny over the past decades and have prompted apologies from many Canadian and Catholic government leaders.
Bishop Wall told the Catholic News Agency that the Kamloops revelations were “really sad and tragic news” and that the bishops “must be able to approach this in a pastoral way so that we can put things right. in light. We can bring healing; we can bring reconciliation; we can move forward in a healthy way.
The American Pastoral Plan provides the Church in the United States with an opportunity to both confront this history and to work collaboratively with Native American nations and tribes to right the wrongs done to Indigenous peoples, especially through models that integrate Indigenous students with their language, culture and identity.
As the Registry previously reported, the restoration of Native American languages ââis a key existential problem for Native American peoples and is an area where the Catholic Church could play a critical role in mending families and saving lives too often threatened by death. bad opportunities, disillusionment and suicidal.
Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix also emphasized the importance of Catholic schools to Native American ministry.
One of the leaders in Catholic education in an Aboriginal context is St. Michael’s Indian School in the Diocese of Gallup. President Dot Teso said St. Michael’s has implemented St. Katharine Drexel’s vision to provide a Catholic education that fully embraces Navajo culture and expresses the Catholic faith through this context. All but four of the employees are Native Americans. The school teaches the Navajo language and culture from pre-K level through high school. With COVID-19 devastating the Navajo Nation, especially their Navajo speaking elders, the school has only increased its efforts to train children to speak and continue the language.
St. Michael’s renewed commitment over the past decade to St. Katharine’s vision of providing Catholic education in an entirely Navajo context, Teso said, has shown how Catholic education can effectively evangelize like no other. Today, the school’s Catholic population has grown from one-third of the school body to over 60% of their 350 students and families, and approximately 13-15 students and staff join the Catholic faith each year. .
âIt’s a big deal,â she said. âThere are parishes that do not have these statistics.
Teso said the Church’s commitment to Indigenous education can also have a profound economic impact.
St. Michael’s Indian School actually signed a memorandum of understanding with Xavier University of Louisiana (the only black Catholic university in the country founded by St. Katharine Drexel) to “investigate the construction of the first Native American Catholic university. of the country on the St. Michael’s campus â. “
“It gives young Native Americans across the country a chance to attend a Catholic university [that fully embraces their culture]”Teso said.
Relearn the history of the Church
The pastoral plan’s mandate to achieve a shared understanding of Catholic history in the United States may be its heaviest burden. Most of the Catholic histories of the twentieth century gave Catholics substantially incomplete pictures of the actual history of the Church in the United States and its Native American roots, leaving most Catholics unaware of the holy heroes and Native Catholic martyrs or of love and appreciation for Native American cultures expressed. by the first holy missionaries and martyrs of Europe.
âIndigenous and white peoples need a better understanding of the history that has unfolded, which will facilitate a greater relationship between peoples,â said Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Barbry said that while developing the pastoral plan is important, the real challenge is to ensure that it gets put into action and doesn’t just sit on the shelves or on the diocese’s webpage.
âDeveloping the plan is one thing. It’s a mountain to climb, but there is a higher mountain behind, and this higher mountain is the implementation, âhe said. âWe can write letters and plans all day, but it will be what follows that makes the difference. “
CNA contributed to this report.