Southwest diocese seeks reconciliation with indigenous peoples

TUBA CITY, Ariz. — Hundreds gathered in St. Jude's Church April 25 for the centenary celebration of the Catholic Church in “Navajo-land,” and in special recognition of the long-standing missionary work and commitment of the Order of Friars Minor.

The event was the third installment of a scheduled five-part celebration that will encompass the entire the Diocese of Gallup, N.M. The final celebration will be held Oct. 3, 1998 in St. Michael, Ariz., to commemorate the arrival of the Franciscans and the founding of St. Michael's Mission.

Mass was concelebrated by Gallup's Bishop Donald Pelotte, along with St. Jude's pastor, Father Godden Maynard CM. Dozens of priests and religious from the Franciscan and Vincentian community were also in attendance.

In his opening greeting, Bishop Pelotte spoke of the gratitude everyone shared for 100 years of evangelization, but also mentioned the “dark shadows” of the past and the need for reconciliation. Father Maynard delivered the homily in which he outlined the long and distinguished history of the Franciscan mission at St. Michael's and throughout Arizona and New Mexico.

After the homily, Bishop Pelotte briefly reflected on the appropriateness of the readings for the day, the feast of St. Mark. The same cultural sensitivity that Mark showed the gentile community in Rome must also be shown today to the indigenous peoples of America.

This “cultural sensitivity” that the bishop referred to was evident in the liturgy. The bishop sprinkled the congregation with Holy Water that had been gathered by medicine men from sacred San Francisco Peaks in Flagstaff, Ariz. The readings were delivered in the five indigenous languages that the original missionaries had found in this area: English, Navajo, Chinese, Filipino, and Hopi. A lone drum sounded during the offertory procession, as a young Navajo girl chanted The Blessing Way in her native tongue. Additional gifts from the earth — corn, melons, squash — were placed at the foot of the altar. A Franciscan friar then “smudged” the altar, the gifts, and the sanctuary, using an eagle's feather to spread the cedar smoke in all directions.

The official term for the integrating of native traditions into Church liturgy is “inculturation.” It has been a goal of Bishop Pelotte for the entire 12 years of his episcopacy in Gallup. However, it first gained wide attention during his recent attendance at the Synod of America, held late last year in the Vatican. Bishop Pelotte was one of 20 U.S. prelates elected by the bishops’ conference to attend the gathering.

During his Synod address, Bishop Pelotte presented his intervention, entitled The Gospel and the Fate of Indigenous Peoples, to Pope John Paul II and the Synod participants, calling for reconciliation and inculturation with indigenous peoples:

“Reconciliation with God and with one another is also needed. As pastors, we must make it clear that we are sorry for past mistakes and actively seek reconciliation. This effort will be painful. For the Church to be connected with the suffering of indigenous peoples and for us to be available for the reconciliation of all with God, we must recognize our instrumentality in the suffering and become a listening partner.

“Inculturation of sacramental life, the liturgy, and theology is of the utmost importance for indigenous peoples.... The Gospel must be preached and lived in a manner that affirms that God was present and working among these peoples before the evangelizers arrived.... Christ did not come to destroy cultures but rather to renew and fulfill them.”

Bishop Pelotte told the Register that his entire life has been intimately connected to the Native American experience. A native of the State of Maine, his mother was French Canadian and his father was Algonquin — one of the few remaining tribes of the Northeast region.

“Unlike the tribes of the Southwest, the Algonquins and others from that area have lost almost all of their traditions. The only common identifying factor they share with other tribes in the United States is their poverty.”

The bishop continued to emphasize the many positive aspects of the church's missionary work, however, especially the work of the Franciscans in Arizona and New Mexico.

“That is why we are here today, to say thank you to the Franciscans and all of the others for all they have done.... Unfortunately, the missiology of the past sometimes brought with it a lot of ideological baggage. Since Vatican II, we have learned that the Gospel of Christ must be planted within a culture and allowed to grow.... To be perfectly honest, there have been cases in the past where people were forced by soldiers and sometimes by missionaries to convert against their will. Even more sadly, people from both sides were killed — and wrongs were committed by both sides. Many native people still hold a lot of resentment about this today.”

Nowhere was this resentment more evident than during the 1992, 500-year celebrations of Columbus and the first evangelizers.

“There were a lot of hard feelings during this time between our Hispanic population and our Native Americans,” the bishop said. Today, similar tensions are beginning to surface concerning the planned 400-year anniversary celebration of the first liturgy, which will be held later this year in Las Cruces, N.M.

Bishop Pelotte has taken a number of corrective measures to deal with these issues.

“A lot of healing can take place from dialogue,” he said. “In 1992, our Hispanics and Native Americans population sat them down and began to share stories about their past. This did a lot of good.”

Several long range initiatives intended to foster inculturation have been started. There is the unique formation program for Native Americans, called Lay Ministries and Catechetical Preparation, that encompasses everything from the diaconate to eucharistic ministers to counselors. The program is conducted within Native American reservations. Only those priests and sisters who are currently ministering in the parishes on reservations, and who have demonstrated their sensitivity to native culture, are allowed to direct this formation.

In the Diocese of Gallup, this generally means the Franciscans, who have been there the longest. Since 1994, however, the Congregation of the Mission (or Vincentians after their founder, St. Vincent DePaul) have been invited into the Western parishes. More recently, the Daughters of Charity (also founded by St. Vincent) have become involved.

Ultimately, the project's goal is that native people will be solely involved in their own formation. To date two Navajo permanent deacons have been ordained, and Bishop Pelotte has commissioned some 20 men and women into various lay ministries.

The second initiative involves integrating native customs into the liturgy — a time consuming and arduous process. The official English text of the liturgy must be juxtaposed to the written text of the native language. This is often complicated because the native languages frequently do not have a written lexicon, or, if they do, many of the natives cannot read it. Added to this of course is the necessity that everything must be approved by the Holy See, where few if any speak or write the native languages.

The Diocese of Gallup has seven different tribes, each speaking a different language. Only the Navajos have received official permission to celebrate Mass in their own language. There is also an approved Navajo Bible, thanks to the work of early Franciscan missionaries.

Work has now begun on a second native language, Keresan, which is the generic language of the Laguna and Pueblo tribes.

Bishop Pelotte looks forward to the many challenges and opportunities of the third millennium. He said his goal for the Jubilee year is to dialogue with the Hopi tribe, where there is a great need for further reconciliation. There is only one small parish of about 40 families on the Hopi reservation. Initial contacts are in the process of being made.

The culture of indigenous peoples has much to offer the Church, he said.

“Each culture has its unique gifts that it can bring to human kind and to religious faith. Indigenous peoples bring a respect for the earth and a depth of spirituality. Their entire day is a spiritual experience. They add a lot of richness to their Catholic faith.”

Gary Griffith writes from Page, Arizona.