Building on the Past

In New Missionaries: A Reflection on Native American Heritage in the Catholic Church (Part I) we explored the need to preserve Native histories and culture. As citizens of a nation that has, in the past, set up programs and laws such as the Indian Boarding Schools that denied Native Americans the right to express their cultural traditions and language, we have the daunting task of acting against such violent forms of racism in our United States. Once we have honored and treasured the rich past and culture of our Native American brothers and sisters, we must strive to incorporate them into our Catholic family.

Enriching the Present

A statue of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha outside her shrine in Fonda, N.Y. run by the Conventual Franciscan Friars. This week attendees of the Tekakwitha Conference will make a pilgrimage to Fonda and Auriesville, homeland of Kateri Tekakwitha. (Photo by Catholic News Service’s Nancy Phelan Wiechec)

In 1939, the Tekakwitha Conference was established. This Catholic organization was developed to give voice to our Indigenous Catholics. The Tekakwitha Conference offers support to those in ministry to Native Americans, educates others on Native American issues and culture, and even holds an annual conference where Native spiritual understandings are free to be expressed in the Catholic Church. The Tekakwitha Conference is a prime example of Catholics inviting our Native American brothers and sisters to partake at the table of our Universal Church. In the past and even now, the Catholic Church has been criticized, and at times rightly so, for demanding conformity. This would definitely be a fair criticism of the 17th Century friars of New Mexico; rather than welcoming the diversity and value that the Pueblo spiritual tradition had to offer, the Spaniards imposed brutal conformity.

At one of our friaries in New Mexico, the friars incorporated  the customs of the Native community which they serve into the architecture of their chapel. The chapel was designed in the fashion of the prayer space traditionally constructed by the Natives of that region. The Natives would build a sacred room under the ground and the worshipers would gather in a circle. The chapel has a circular skylight to simulate the opening in the ground where worshipers would enter and seating that is placed in a circle around the altar. This is a wonderful example of how the friars incorporated the richness of the Native culture into their liturgical life. Instead of ignoring the Nativesʼ spiritual tradition, the friars enriched the present by valuing and utilizing the dynamic and diverse culture that the Native Americans have to offer.

For all of us researching our genealogies, once we come to understand the culture and history of our ancestors, we must make it come alive again by incorporated our ancestral culture into our prayer, liturgy, and even theology.

Just as old traditions from England, Ireland, France, Italy, Poland, Germany, etc. are incorporated into the life of the Church, Native American culture has an equal right to be welcomed into the spiritual life of the Church. For all of us researching our genealogies, once we come to understand the culture and history of our ancestors, we must make it come alive again by incorporated our ancestral culture into our prayer, liturgy, and even theology. While this is easily done for western cultures, somehow, when Native American traditions are welcomed into the Church there seems to always be an opponent who calls the diversifying of worship and spirituality “liturgical abuse” or “pagan”. Brothers and sisters, we are not a church of conformity, but of unified diversity.

It is our responsibility as the new Catholic missionaries to celebrate, understand, and incorporate Native American custom and tradition into the Body of Christ.

Working Towards the Future in Hope

Lastly, after preserving our history and enriching the Church with our ancestral traditions and understandings, we are called to lay the groundwork for future generations in the Church. When doing genealogical research, I am always reminded of my own mortality. For genealogical enthusiasts, we should ask ourselves how we will shape the world for our future generations who may be doing genealogical research on us one day. Will I be remembered for great suffering one day just as I remembered my Cherokee ancestors for the great suffering they endured? Will I be remembered by future generations with disappointment just as I remember my Franciscan predecessors of the 17th Century with disappointment? Questions like these call me to do my best to build up the Kingdom of God for those who will follow after me.

Letʼs say you are doing genealogical research and you discover that you have Irish ancestors who immigrated to America in the 20th Century. You gain some great family information and you discover the harsh prejudice that your Irish ancestors and many Irish immigrants faced at that time in history. Instead of just taking this as a historical fact to lament, the Catholic genealogical enthusiast has an obligation to respond. An appropriate response would be to work towards fighting the oppressive structures in place today that deny immigrants the human dignity that they deserve.

Conventual Franciscan Friars continue their service to the Native American poor. (Photo courtesy of Province of Our Lady of Consolation.)

For me, the response is a daunting one. More than one quarter of the American Indigenous population lives in poverty. The Native American reservation population today is one that is immersed in realities of poverty, alcoholism, lack of education, shortened average life spans, and the list continues. It can be easily argued that the Native American population is the most disenfranchised and marginalized population in our nation. Native Americans remain on the margins of society where they were placed when the European colonizers first arrived in the New World. What could I possibly do to care for this family of people to whom my ancestors belonged? One way is through my Franciscan Fraternity. As Iʼve mentioned, the friars still minister within Native American communities, and it is my hope to have the honor to serve my Native American brothers and sisters.

Additionally, as Catholics, we all have a responsibility to care for the temporal needs of our Native American brothers and sisters. Holy Mother Church has always upheld the principle of preferential option for the poor. We are compelled by the Gospels to care for the least among us, and I believe that it is clear to see that one of the least among us it the Native American population. Our Catholic Church should be dedicated to ensuring the rights and dignity of those Native American communities that are simply struggling to survive in a world where they have always been kicked to the curb.

Just as the Gospel Message leads us to care for those around us, genealogy research should lead us to care for the Children of God.

Just as the Gospel Message leads us to care for those around us, genealogy research should lead us to care for the Children of God. Genealogy is not simply a wonderful and insightful hobby, but like all things we do, it should ultimately lead us to better answer the Gospelʼs call to love and serve. With genealogy we come to appreciate the diversity, immensity, and beauty of all Godʼs Children. We, as genealogical enthusiasts should take time to appreciate this fact and reflect on how we can build up a more sanctified Church and a more just world for the generations that will one day be researching us.

Go Forth And Preach the Gospel at All Times!

Well, my brother and sister missionaries, maybe this was the first time that you have ever thought about what role Native American heritage should play in our Church…maybe not. Just as in the days of exploration the Catholic Church went about telling the Native Americans of the Good News of Jesus Christ, we too must continue the responsibility to minister to our brother and sister Native Americans. While the Church has not always done the best in preaching the Gospel, today we have a new opportunity. We have the opportunity to use our gifts and love of genealogy to answer Godʼs call to preserve the past, enrich the present, and work toward the future in hope.

We must be a missionary people to our Indigenous Catholics by educating ourselves on Native history and culture, welcoming Native spirituality at the table of the Universal Church, and by caring for Native American communities who act as Christ among us.

Go, therefore, and be the Gospel for all nations and peoples!