US Catholic Bishops Approve Development of Native American Pastoral Plan

The bishops’ voted overwhelmingly to support the creation of a unified and comprehensive approach to ministry for America’s Indigenous peoples.

Two Native Americans faithful wearing traditional regalia stand during Pope Francis weekly general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on April 27, 2016.
Two Native Americans faithful wearing traditional regalia stand during Pope Francis weekly general audience in St Peter's square at the Vatican on April 27, 2016. (photo: Filippo Monteforte / AFP/Getty)

WASHINGTON — At its spring assembly last week, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops voted overwhelmingly to back the creation of a complete pastoral plan for Catholic Native American ministry. 

“There is at present no guide for the Catholic Church in the U.S. in approaching, understanding and promoting Catholic Native ministry,” said Bishop James Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, head of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.

Bishop Wall outlined in his June 17 presentation during the bishops’ virtual spring assembly a plan for better enculturation 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 issues of justice and reconciliation regarding historical matters like Catholic boarding schools that were part of the effort to assimilate and Americanize Native American children, often through coercion.

Numerous Catholic archbishops and bishops spoke out strongly in favor of developing the pastoral plan, which would acknowledge the Church’s own failings toward Native Americans and create a comprehensive unified model for the Catholic Church to heal the present and future, and even more broadly help restore the Church’s own knowledge of Native American roots. 

“The pastoral plan will help reassure Catholic Natives that their ministry has a high priority in the universal Church,” Bishop Wall, whose flock in the Gallup Diocese includes Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, Apache, and Pueblo peoples, told the U.S. bishops. 

The proposed pastoral plan came out of a 2018 listening session with national Native American Catholic organizations, leaders of dioceses with large Catholic Native populations, and the Black and Indian Missions Office. The sessions, the Bishop Wall noted, made clear that Native American Catholics wanted their voices to be better heard within the Church. 

“The 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,” said Bishop Wall, recognizing evolving understandings of racism, the canonization of the first indigenous North American saint, St. Kateri Tekakwitha of the Mohawk people, and new approaches to social justice in Native American communities.

The U.S. bishops voted 223-6 to approve developing the comprehensive pastoral plan. Among the Catholic bishops and archbishops expressing strong support were USCCB pro-life committee chair 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 much needed,” Archbishop Etienne said.

The development of the U.S. bishops’ pastoral plan has the potential to fulfill calls by the Holy Father, from St. John Paul II to Pope Francis, for the Catholic Church to challenge colonialism and more fully embrace Native people and their cultures.

In 1984, Pope St. John Paul II declared, “Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian” and said the Church desires to assist people of all cultures “to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought” and affirmed their importance to the Church.

“The revival of Indian culture will be a revival of those true values which they have inherited and which are purified and ennobled by the Revelation of Jesus Christ,” he said.


Healing the Present 

The complete pastoral plan is expected to give U.S. dioceses 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 collaborator with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, told the Register that his understanding is the pastoral plan may spend the introduction or first chapter addressing the various injustices done to Native people over the centuries. 

Barbry said perceptions that the Church is silent on the boarding-school era, Christopher Columbus’ legacy and the “Doctrine of Discovery” (which involves the U.S. government using 15th-century papal documents to justify extinguishing Native sovereignty and title to their land) pose “impediments to fruitful evangelization.” 

“This pastoral plan is probably the first national effort to really begin addressing a lot of these concerns that have been ongoing,” Barbry said.

The U.S. bishops spoke out strongly in terms of righting wrongs against Native Americans caused both directly or indirectly by the Catholic Church’s role in European colonialism, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Bishop Wall said the proposed Catholic Native American ministry pastoral plan would also have the U.S. Catholic bishops address head-on the Church’s involvement in the residential schools, where the U.S. government effectively suppressed Native American cultures, languages and identities and ushered in catastrophic intergenerational effects on Native American families to the present day. 

The vote on the pastoral plan came only weeks after the rediscovery of unmarked and likely undocumented mass graves of 215 children on the grounds of the Catholic-run Kamloops Indian Residential School, which closed in 1978, in the Canadian province of British Columbia. The Canadian residential schools, whose mission was similar to American boarding schools, came under major scrutiny in recent decades and have prompted apologies from many Canadian government and Catholic leaders. 

Bishop Wall told Catholic News Agency the Kamloops revelations were “really sad and tragic news” and that the bishops “need to be able to address that in a pastoral way so that we can bring things into the light. We can bring healing; we can bring reconciliation; we can move forward in a healthy way.”


Restoring Identities

The U.S. pastoral plan provides an opportunity for the Church in the U.S. to both squarely confront that history and work collaboratively with Native American nations and tribes to redress the wrongs done to Native people, particularly through models that integrate Native students with their language, culture and identity. 

As the Register previously reported, the restoration of Native American languages is a key existential issue for Native American peoples and is an area where the Catholic Church could play a critical role in repairing families and saving lives that are too often threatened by poor opportunities, disillusionment and suicide. 

Bishop Olmsted of Phoenix also raised the importance of Catholic schools for Native American ministry.

One of the leading lights of Catholic education in a Native context is St. Michael Indian School in the Diocese of Gallup. President Dot Teso said that St. Michael’s has put into action St. Katharine Drexel’s vision of providing Catholic education that fully embraces Navajo culture and expresses the Catholic faith through that context. All but four of the staff are Native American. The school teaches Navajo language and culture starting at the pre-K level and going into high school. With COVID-19 having devastated the Navajo Nation, particularly their Navajo-speaking elders, the school only increased its efforts to form children to speak and carry on the language.

St. Michael’s renewed commitment over the past decade to St. Katharine’s vision to give Catholic education in a fully Navajo context, Teso said, has shown how Catholic education can effectively evangelize like no other. Today, the school’s Catholic population has risen from a third of the school body to more than 60% of their 350 students and families, and approximately 13 to 15 students and staff join the Catholic faith annually.

“That’s a big deal,” she said. “There are parishes that don’t have those statistics.”

Teso said the Church’s commitment to Native education can have a profound economic impact, as well. 

St. Michael’s Indian School has actually signed a memorandum of understanding with Xavier University of Louisiana (the nation’s only Black Catholic university founded by St. Katharine Drexel) to “investigate building the first Catholic American Indian university in the country on St. Michael’s campus.”

“It gives Native American youth all over the country a chance to go to a Catholic university [that fully embraces their culture],” Teso said. 


Relearning Church History

The mandate of the pastoral plan to achieve a shared understanding of Catholic history in the U.S. may be its heaviest lift. Most 20th-century Catholic histories have given Catholics substantially incomplete pictures of the actual history of the Church in the U.S. and its Native American roots, leaving most Catholics unaware of the Catholic Native holy heroes and martyrs or the love and appreciation of Native American cultures expressed by the first missionary saints and martyrs from Europe.

“Both Native and white people need a greater understanding of the history that’s transpired, which will facilitate a greater relationship between the peoples,” said Bishop Steven Biegler of Cheyenne, Wyoming.

Barbry said that while the development of the pastoral plan is important, the real challenge is making sure it gets put into action and does not merely stay on the shelves or the diocesan webpage. 

“Drafting the plan is one thing. That’s one mountain to climb, but there’s a taller mountain behind it, and that taller mountain is implementation,” he said. “We can draft letters and plans all day, but it’s going to be what follows that makes the difference.”

CNA contributed to this report.