A Pastoral Message to the Native Peoples of Canada
As members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and its Commission
for the Evangelization of Peoples, we rejoice with you, the aboriginal
people of Canada, in the rediscovery, recognition and celebration of your
spiritual heritage. The Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, invites us to join
in this celebration, praising what he calls that marvellous rebirth
of your culture and traditions.(1)
In this rebirth, we witness the Spirit of God working through you and among
you, bringing about healing for individuals and communities. We also see
in this the action of the Spirit contributing to justice and reconciliation
among all the peoples of Canada.
As pastors, we have seen how, for many among you, the rediscovery of
the spiritual riches of your traditions is an integral part of your own
restoration. You are finding new strength in an ever-deepening embrace
of the seven spiritual gifts of respect, wisdom, courage, love, humility,
honesty, and truth, as expressed in the teachings of the Medicine Wheel.
In this way, you reflect ever more clearly your true dignity as Children
We Experience Christ Anew
Our message is addressed particularly to you, our Catholic brothers
and sisters. In a unique way, you welcomed the Gospel of Jesus and continue
to live as faithful witnesses to your baptism. You are a blessing for the
whole Church as you develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of
the richness of your own cultures and traditions. Thus, you continue to
challenge all Christians at the deepest level of their understanding of
the mystery of Christ and their reality as the Body of Christ. Pope John
Paul II reminded the Church of its profound debt to aboriginal Catholics
and their ancestors in the faith who since the middle of the 17th century
have maintained a steadfast love for the Church. Speaking at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré
in 1984, he said,
Your encounter with the Gospel has not only enriched you, it has
enriched the Church. We are well aware that this has not been without difficulties
and, occasionally, blunders. However, and you are experiencing this today,
the Gospel does not destroy what is best in you. On the contrary, it enriches
as it were from within the spiritual qualities and gifts that are distinctive
to your cultures. In addition your Amerindian and Inuit traditions permit
the development of new ways of expressing the message of salvation and
they help us to better understand to what point Jesus is the Saviour and
how universal his salvation.(2)
We rejoice, not only because you have received Christ but also because
many Catholics experience Christ anew through you. So it is, at the threshold
of the third millennium, we find ourselves in a dialogue that although
at times is controversial always offers tremendous opportunities.
A Sign to this Generation
In each generation there have arisen among you men and women who exemplify
values that are deeply held in your traditions, values which humanity and
all creation seriously need. Even in our own time, many are greatly encouraged
in their faith through the heroic life of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. Indeed,
that Child of God, who died so young in the latter part of the 17th century,
remains an enduring witness for all Catholics of the great love of God
for the poor.
Today, as you experience a steady growth in your population, a stronger
sense of solidarity among your nations, renewed opportunities for the just
settlement of your land claims, and a greater measure of self-government,
you have not abandoned the path of peace.
In defending your identity, your nationhood, your land and our common
environment, you challenge all Canadians. A challenge, first of all, to
be faithful to the treaties that have been made. A challenge also to be
faithful to the truth, rooted in the original creation covenant, commanding
all humanity to be stewards of the land and everything that belongs to
In holding fast to your commitment to family and community, in resisting
the individualism and materialism of today's society, and in insisting,
despite years of suffering, on reconciliation and restorative justice,
you are giving courageous witness to a true understanding of healing, based
on harmony and balance.
Your actions are evidence of a deep spiritual well that has sustained
life and the promise of new life even in tragic conditions. At the threshold
of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, you stand out as a sign of hope
for all of God's Creation.(4) We can hear
in your best efforts the voice of the prophet, calling humanity to prepare
for the "Year of God's Favour" through acts of restoration and renewal.
The legacy of a Deeply Damaged Relationship
Having lived with and among you for generations, as pastors we are aware
that the romantic view of your way of life that is embraced by popular
culture often does not respect the reality you are living. As the recent
Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples has made clear once again, you carry
a grossly unequal burden and legacy of the deeply damaged relationship
that exists between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people.(5)
We recognize in each spiritual tradition there is a mixture of shadow
and light. However, we wish to reaffirm that the Catholic Church rejects
nothing that is true and holy in aboriginal traditions. Moreover, the Church
encourages all its members to recognize, preserve and promote the spiritual,
moral and cultural values found within your traditions and to work together
with you in a spirit of prudent and charitable dialogue and collaboration.(6)
We remember as well, with profound regret, those dimensions of Catholic
mission history that were too closely identified with the European forces
of expansion and assimilation, and so contributed to your suffering.(7)
Many times in this final decade of the 20th century, the pastors of the
Church have spoken about this concern. While we remain grateful to those
who have come before us - especially those many bishops, priests, religious
and lay workers who gave their lives in loving service - we also recognize
the faults, failings, and sinfulness within the Church that have blocked
access to the fullness of the freedom that the Gospel brings.(8)
During this examination of conscience, the Catholic Church has been accompanied
by other Christian denominations. In profound ways, all Canadian Christians
have expressed apologies, which they are now endeavouring to live in acts
of reconciliation and justice.
Commitment to Dialogue
Within the Church and the broader human community, people share each
other's joys and hopes, griefs and anxieties.(9)
As it has for generations, this bond provides solid ground for all humanity
to build on together.
As bishops, we respect your ancestral customs and spiritual heritage.
We also respect those among you who have found in contemporary expressions
of these traditions ways to revere the power of God present in all of Creation.
We renew our commitment to the dialogue that has begun between our respective
spiritual heritages. Following the example of Christ our Elder and Teacher,
we do this in union with the whole Church, which regards with sincere
reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings
which, though differing in many respects, from the ones she holds and sets
forth, nonetheless reflect a ray of the Truth which enlightens everyone.(10)
Through dialogue, persons with solid conviction in their traditions
can share with others who are equally grounded in their own spiritual riches
their ways of prayer and their means of searching for God. This dialogue,
however, requires trust, confidence, utmost understanding and sensitivity
Yearning to be Whole
For yourselves, the need to dialogue comes from deep within you and
your communities. It wells up from a yearning to be whole and to bring
into harmony those elements of religious traditions that exist, side by
side, within you. This attitude is especially true for those of you who
for years have had to work out in practical ways the answer to the questions,
"Can I be both Christian and Indian? or must I choose?" In your own contexts
you have led the way in the universal challenge issued by Pope John Paul
II: Each member of the faithful and all Christian communities are called
to practise dialogue.(12)
The Church needs your leadership in this dialogue, if it is to bear
fruit in deeper mutual understanding, broader comprehension of the Spirit
of God, and fuller inculturation(13) of
the Catholic faith. In all of this, the Spirit of God is building among
us a Church that never ceases to proclaim salvation in Christ, while also
demonstrating in its liturgy, education, pastoral ministry and in the very
life of Christians deep reverence and respect for the cultures and spiritualities
of aboriginal peoples.(14)
Spiritual dialogue is, finally, more than knowledge and discussion.
The end of the spiritual journey is beyond the limits of human understanding,
and even beyond that broadened understanding which results from sharing
all we know. The point of arrival for every spiritual quest is to share
in the holiness of God. As Scripture says, Be holy, for I the Lord your
God am holy.(15) Inspired by the memory
of Our Lady who appeared as an Aztec at Guadalupe almost 470 years ago,
and invoking the intercession of the young Mohawk woman, Blessed Kateri
Tekakwitha, let us journey together as faithful pilgrims toward the fulfilment
of God's promise in humanity.
Members of the Episcopal Commission for the Evangelization of Peoples
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops
+Most Reverend André Gaumond (Chair)
+Most Reverend Vincent Cadieux, OMI
+Most Reverend Denis Croteau, OMI
+Most Reverend J. Faber MacDonald
1. Pope John Paul II, Homily to the Native People at Fort Simpson, delivered at Yellowknife, NWT, September 18, 1984.
2. Pope John Paul II, Homily at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, September 10, 1984.
3. Cf. Archbishop Peter Sutton, OMI, Intervention at the Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America, November 24, 1997.
4. In his apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, no. 46, Pope John Paul II identifies signs of hope, not as isolated events or phenomena but as part of a cosmic tension leading to new birth. He encourages the Church to prepare for the Jubilee of the Year 2000 by seeking these signs of hope.
5. Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Volumes 1-5, Ottawa, 1996.
6. Second Vatican Council, Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, no. 2.
7. Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River: Brief to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, November 8, 1993. The Permanent Council spoke in particular of the role of the Church in the Indian residential school system. Here and elsewhere, Catholic Church leadership has apologized for the dimensions of missionary work that reflected a Eurocentric mentality and promoted assimilation.
8. For example, Canadian Conference of Bishops, 1975 Labour Day Message, Northern Development: At What Cost?, paragraph 25: "We readily acknowledge that the Catholic Church must also take a critical look at itself. We now see that coming from another culture, the Church may have contributed to the disruptive changes in Northern culture...."
Also, the Permanent Council of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992 pastoral message, Towards a New Evangelization: On the Occasion of the 500th Anniversary of the Evangelization of the Americas: "If there were bishops and missionaries championing aboriginal rights, there were also theologians and Church leaders defending colonial exploitation. While some missionaries attempted to protect and understand native cultures, others failed to value native beliefs and customs as seeds of the Word of God."
As well, Let Justice Flow Like a Mighty River: "There is much in the relationship between the Catholic Church and Aboriginal Peoples to celebrate and build on. However, we are currently very aware of what was lost and this is of great importance to us. What was lost or nearly so, was the free expression and celebration of the spirituality of the First Peoples of this land."
9. This list of passions opens Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, issued in 1961 by the Second Vatican Council, linking the journey of the Church in the world with the journey of all people, especially the poor. The same solidarity is described in the reflection put forth in the 1991 reflection Dialogue and Proclamation by the Pontifical Council on Interreligious Dialogue and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. This stresses the importance of the "dialogue of life" "where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations."
10. Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, no. 2.
11. Pope John Paul II, Address to the participants in the 1995 Plenary Assembly of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.
12. Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter on the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate, Redemptoris Missio, no. 57.
13. "Given that in America, popular piety is a mode of inculturation of the Catholic faith and that it has often assumed indigenous religious forms, we must not underestimate the fact that, prudently considered, it too can provide valid cues for a more complete inculturation of the Gospel. This is especially important among the indigenous peoples, in order that 'the seeds of the Word' found in their culture may come to their fullness in Christ." Pope John Paul II, Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Ecclesia in America, January 22, 1999, no. 16.
14. U.S. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, 1992: Time for Remembering, Reconciling and Recommitting Ourselves as a People, December 17, 1991.
15. Leviticus 11.44.