The basic organizational structure of the Catholic Church is diocesan. Each diocese, under its own Bishop, is responsible for its own pastoral outreach and ministry, and each diocese is the essential and primary pastoral agent in the lives of all Catholics, including Indigenous peoples. It is the local Bishop who knows best the needs and situation of the First Nations, Inuit and Métis who may be in his diocese. In addition to the outreach and pastoral ministry by the local diocese, many Canadian Catholic religious communities, men and women, continue to work with Indigenous peoples. Their services have traditionally included education and health care, as well as a pastoral presence.
The Early Days of the Church in the
Since the earliest days of the Church in the Western hemisphere, there has been special concern and attention for the Indigenous peoples, many of whom have become part of the Church and given much to it. For example, the devotion to Our Lady of Guadalupe dates back to the year 1531, when the Virgin Mary appeared to a Mexican Aztec, Saint Juan Diego, in the traditional symbols and colours of his culture and asked that a church be built for her Son. Many other Indigenous people have also served as powerful witnesses and played important roles in the early Church in North America, such as Joseph Chiwatenhwa, Saint Kateri Tekakwitha and Grand Chief Henri Membertou, who became the first aboriginal leader to be baptized by the French, as a sign of alliance and good faith in 1610. His entire family also received Baptism at the same time. As soon as he was baptized he was eager to become a committed Christian. On his deathbed in 1611, he charged his children to remain devout Christians. It is this faith that has been passed on to the descendants of the Grand Chief and this faith that continues to inspire the Mi’kmaq People who live throughout the
It is truly remarkable that through the Grand Chief and his Grand Council, the longest form of government in
Throughout the 17th century, in what is today
This tradition of Catholic service was carried north and west across what is now
Today Catholics, like other Canadians, are becoming more aware of how their relationships with Indigenous peoples have often been marked by imperialism and colonialism. This changing awareness is evident in following contemporary reflections:
An evangelizing process uneven and limited
“The story of Christianity in the
A memory never abandoned by the people they served
“There were always those missionaries who established relationships with Native Peoples that were marked by profound respect and mutuality as well as dedicated service. While some of their actions may be criticized today in the light of new understandings, they were first and foremost men and women of the Gospel who, within their human limitations, tried to act with love and compassion. Their memory has never been abandoned by the people that they served.
“However, it must be acknowledged that the missionary endeavour was deeply marked by the prevailing attitudes of the superiority of European culture. When this conviction was translated into social action in the 19th Century, it manifested itself in a paternalistic model of charity which at times expressed itself as protection of Native rights and freedoms and at other times took the form of coercion and control.”
Walking a difficult journey together
Despite these struggles, “the Church has walked with Aboriginal Peoples, shared their joys, their sufferings, and their aspirations, and supported their struggles for recognition of their rights for personal and collective growth. Then and now, the Churches provide a place where Native and non-Native Peoples may find common ground. Non-Native Church members have accompanied Native Peoples on their journey – sometimes leading, sometimes following, sometimes side-by-side” (CCCB Brief to the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, Let Justice Flow like a Mighty River, 1995).
In his address to the 2008 Plenary Assembly of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the then National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Mr. Phil Fontaine, said: “I don’t want to look at the hurts of the past … I want to recommit ourselves and to talk about the future. So much in the past was also good and healthy, and we can build on this and learn… This will be a difficult journey, because too many Canadians do not believe in us, the Aboriginal Peoples.”
1 2001 Census - Statistics Canada