Catholic Ministry to First Nations People

“Bringing to,” “doing for,” and “walking with”: these are three phrases which best describe the stages of Roman Catholic ministry among the First Nations and Métis people of Saskatchewan.

The first or missionary stage ran from the mid- to late-1800s and was characterized by missionaries living with the people and learning the language, but in general evangelizing with a Eurocentric sense of superiority and a cultural bias that was seen as “bringing the gospel” to a largely pagan people. The second or institutional stage ran from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. This stage was characterized by the establishment of mission complexes and a spirit of “doing for” or offering services for the people, in places such as hospitals and Indian Residential schools, as well as providing for elements of Church life in worship and sacraments. Then came the social and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 1970s, which heralded the beginning of a post-institutional stage of ministry. The Second Vatican Council fostered a view of the Church as “People of God” as well as a greater appreciation of world religions, the power of inculturation, and interreligious dialogue.

In 1973, indigenous peoples from South, Central and North America gathered with Oblate missionaries in Guatemala. They asked the Oblates not to abandon them now, but to “walk with them” in their struggle for justice, land, political independence, cultural identity, and spiritual revival—a request that became symbolic for many. This new attitude of “walking with” has influenced Native ministry in Saskatchewan over the last thirty years, at least from a Roman Catholic perspective. It has taken the form of greater sensitivity to First Nations culture and spirituality, language learning for some, participation in First Nations ceremonies such as the sweat lodge, dances, and pipe ceremonies, as well as entering into respectful interreligious dialogue with First Nations elders. Initiatives imbued with this attitude are the Circle Project in Regina; Valley Native Ministry in the Qu’Appelle valley; Guadalupe House in Saskatoon; Kateri Ministry in Prince Albert; the Keewatin Renewal Team that traveled the diocese of Keewatin-Le Pas from 1987 to 1990; and the Roman Catholic First Nations ministry team in the Battlefords—not to mention the individual efforts by clerical, religious, and lay missionaries. More recent initiatives are the creation of a diocesan First Nations circle in Prince Albert, the language and culture-based Cree Nation Oblate community in Makwa, and a team approach in northwest Saskatchewan.

Some significant events and persons contributing to this “walking with” approach were the Oblate-sponsored Summer Leadership Institutes from 1975 to 1985 across Canada; Fr. John Hascall, a Capuchin Ojibway priest from the United States, who shared his understanding and example of inculturation (Christian faith expressed within the heart of First Nations culture and spirituality); the “Faith Family Festivals” in Northern Saskatchewan from 1983 onwards; the Lebret Oblate 1988 conference, which articulated a new vision for First Nations ministry; the Lebret Task Force (1988–98), which sought to implement that vision; Four-Day Fasts in Alberta (1984–88 and 1993–97); the orientation sessions for Native ministry at Lac St. Anne, Alberta (1995–98); and most recently, an annual First Nations retreat held at Queen’s House in Saskatoon. The annual pilgrimage at the St. Laurent shrine in the diocese of Prince Albert now includes a Cree Eucharist that integrates both the sweet grass and pipe ceremonies.

Some of the programs and movements that became part of this transition are the Christopher Leadership course; addictions awareness workshops; Marriage and Engaged Encounter; Search weekends for youth; and more recently, Cursillo, Red Road to Recovery, 12 Step Pilgrimages, a Basic Ecclesial Community approach, and also “Return To Spirit,” a three-stage approach for fostering healing from the Residential School experience. Much of this “walking with” ministry includes hearing the stories and healing the wounds of life’s hurts in a variety of ways.

Sylvain Lavoie