Bishops OK Indigenous ministry pastoral plan;
healing, mission, reconciliation among its aims

A bishop votes June 14, 2024, at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Spring Plenary Assembly in Louisville, Ky. (OSV News photo/Bob Roller)

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (OSV News) — The U.S. Catholic bishops have approved a new pastoral plan for Indigenous Catholics, almost half a century since the last such document.

“Keeping Christ’s Sacred Promise: A Pastoral Framework for Indigenous Ministry” was approved by a vote of 181 to 2, with three bishops abstaining, on June 14, the second day of public sessions during the bishops’ Spring Plenary Assembly in Louisville.

The 56-page text was developed by the Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church, chaired by Auxiliary Bishop Arturo Cepeda of Detroit, and its Subcommittee on Native American Affairs of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, chaired by Bishop Chad W. Zielinski of New Ulm, Minnesota.

The pastoral plan had been tabled at the bishops’ meeting last fall pending further discussion. Chieko Noguchi, USCCB executive director of public affairs, told OSV News ahead of the spring assembly that the vote had been delayed until now to ensure the plan was “wide enough (so) that it encompasses” the “many different cultures that are affiliated with Native and Indigenous communities.”

Currently, the U.S. government recognizes 574 American Indian nations and tribes and Alaska Native entities — although this is not an exhaustive account of Indigenous peoples as some do not have federal recognition.

“Many Indigenous Catholics have felt a sense of abandonment in their relationship with Church leaders due to a lack of understanding of their unique cultural needs,” says the introduction of the pastoral plan. “We apologize for the failure to nurture, strengthen, honor, recognize, and appreciate those entrusted to our pastoral care.”

The five-part plan focuses on calls for healing, mission, reconciliation, holiness and transformation in ministry to the nation’s Indigenous Catholics, whose “journey … in the United States of America has been marked by moments of great joy but also of profound sorrow,” the document states.

“Through this pastoral framework, we … hope to begin anew a journey of mutual accompaniment with the Catholic Indigenous Peoples of these lands,” states the document. “We recognize that the Indigenous Peoples were the first to embrace the Catholic faith in this continent.”

The text points to the missionary efforts of St. John de Brébeuf, St. Isaac Jogues, St. Junípero Serra, Venerable Frederic Baraga, Venerable Eusebio Francesco Chini (also known as “Padre Kino”).

In addition, the plan cites the witness of Indigenous Catholics such as St. Kateri Tekakwitha, Servants of God Antonio Inija and Companions (known as the Martyrs of La Florida Missions), Servant of God Nicholas Black Elk and “countless other Indigenous Catholics.”

At the same time, the plan acknowledges that “the history of Indigenous Peoples” in the U.S. has been “punctuated by trauma,” due to “epidemics, national policies and Native boarding schools,” all of which worked to systemically eradicate Indigenous peoples and their languages, cultural and religious practices, and varied ways of life.

Through the residential school system, both the U.S. and Canadian governments sought to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples by separating children at an early age from their parents, families and communities — including those who had been Christian for some time — and depriving them of their languages, cultures and identities.

Historically, Catholic Church leaders were co-opted by government officials into participating in these violations of natural law engineered by the government, with clergy and religious abandoning the Church’s previous model of missionaries integrating into Indigenous communities, sharing the faith through their cultures and providing education locally. The residential school system severely damaged the familial and social fabric of Indigenous nations, and saw thousands of students physically, mentally and sexually abused.

In July 2022, Pope Francis embarked on a penitential pilgrimage to Canada, during which he apologized for the Church’s role in that nation’s residential school system in the 19th and 20th centuries.

“The Church recognizes that it has played a part in traumas experienced by Native children,” said the pastoral framework.

The plan also reiterated the Vatican’s March 2023 repudiation of the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery,” a concept first formulated to support European claims to land beyond continental Europe that, and according to some scholars, found a basis in several papal bulls from the 15th century, among them Pope Nicholas V’s “Dum Diversas” (1452) and “Romanus Pontifex” (1455), and Pope Alexander VI’s “Inter Caetera” (1493).

Along with such apologies for the long-standing traumas experienced by Indigenous peoples at the hands of colonists and Church alike — the effects of which continue today — the plan called for “a return to authentic evangelization,” which decouples the proclamation of the Gospel from attempts to colonize.

“The authentic Catholic approach to evangelization is predicated on the idea that all cultures are open to the truth of the Gospel,” the text states.

Reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Native American communities must be predicated on developing “a sense of trust,” said the plan, emphasizing the need for “transparency … relationship building … listening … (and) accountability.”

Healing the intergenerational wounds inflicted on Indigenous families is critical, the plan notes, stressing the importance of nurturing marriage, family bonds, respect for elders and — urgently — addressing a suicide crisis among Native youth and young adults.

In addition, the text calls for “authentic inculturation in the liturgy,” in full conformity with the directives of the Holy See, to deepen the faith of Indigenous Catholics. The plan notes that elements present in some Native cultures — such as sacred smoke and the orientation of sacred spaces with regard to the four main directions — already find a complement in the Catholic faith, as in the use of incense and the traditional orientation of the altar to the east.

The Eucharist remains central to healing the wounds of Indigenous Catholics and deepening their relationship with Christ, said the document.

“Catholic Native Peoples have a deep reverence for and devotion to the mystery of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist,” said the text. “In general, Indigenous communities demonstrate an innate capacity to accept and integrate into their cultural beliefs this mystical union: of the human and the divine, of matter and spirit.”

Catechesis and formation, as well as the practical redress of inequalities in housing, economic development, education and health care are also essential, said the text, which highlighted as well the importance of ministering to urban Indigenous and to ending racism, “an intergenerational scourge that continues to affect Native Peoples.”

Developing Indigenous leadership in the Church also is crucial, said the document.

Following the adoption of the plan, the bishops have committed to “conduct a follow-up listening session with Catholic Native leaders within a year or so,” along with “continued dialogue with experts and organizations” to address social justice concerns among Indigenous communities.

“In a world that is increasingly secular, the Indigenous worldview — which recognizes that we are all created and loved by God — stands as a beacon of hope and truth,” said the plan. “Indigenous Catholics witness to the rest of the Church about the need to see God in day-to-day life. … The Church must use all available resources to evangelize and form this part of the body of Christ.”


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