Jesuits Discuss Importance of
Native American Ministry

By John Borelli

Ministry among native peoples dates from the beginning of the Jesuit presence in North America and today, according to some, it is the best measure of the general apostolic health of the U. S.Assistancy.Having experienced a ministry that yields a rich though demanding, at times exhausting life, 12 Jesuits who met at Creighton University to discuss their experiences in native ministry agreed that they love this work because they love the people and wish to provide a Catholic ministerial and sacramental presence, founded on the ministry of Christ, which gives hope and empowerment. They also believe that Native American ministry needs serious attention.

The U. S. Jesuit Conference’s Advisory Board for Interreligious Dialogue and Relations convened a special consultation at Creighton March 15-18. The meeting drew together Jesuits from U.S. provinces and Canada to reflect on their experiences and to discern future steps for raising consciousness on the centrality and importance of ministry among Native Americans. I chair the advisory board, at the invitation of the U.S. provincials, in my capacity as national coordinator for interreligious dialogue.

Membership on the advisory board consists of a representative appointed by each provincial and a few experts whom I appoint. Two members have considerable experience ministering among Native Americans, Frs. Raymond A. Bucko (NYK) and Carl F. Starkloff (MIS). Fr. Paul B.Macke (CHG), secretary for pastoral ministries, to whom the advisory board reports, also has experience in this ministry and lived many years in Alaska. Fr. Thomas F.Michel (IDO), originally from St. Louis and now Father General’s secretary for interreligious dialogue, encouraged our planning after his review at the advisory board’s meeting last October.None of the consultations on interreligious relations that he has convened has been for Jesuits who minister among native peoples.At Creighton,we sought to fill a gap while facilitating a fresh reflection during this period of discernment for the future.

We invited Jesuits from the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and Alaska to join us to reflect on the role of interreligious dialogue in contemporary Native American ministries. As the project unfolded, what we already knew was implicit became more explicit, as the title of the consultation’s report indicates: “Jesuit Ministry among Native Americans: Evangelization, Inculturation, Interreligious Dialogue and Discernment for the Future.” Eight U. S. Jesuits and one from Canada joined us: Phillip T. Cooke (WIS), Frs. Donald A. Doll (WIS), Denis G.Donoghue (ORE) and John F.Duggan (CSU), Paul H. Grubb (ORE), and Frs. John E. Hatcher (WIS), Mark Hoelsken (ORE), Peter J. Klink (WIS) and Patrick J. Twohy (ORE). It was encouraging that three were under 40, and two of these, scholastics.

The diversity of experiences and variance in styles of ministry was obvious from the first. Some tribes are flush with new funds from casinos while others, and many even in the successful tribes, still suffer some of the worst poverty and health conditions in the United States. Everyone experiences frustration in ministry, but in Native American ministry one must negotiate at least two worlds and usually more. These worlds interact and sometimes clash in the lives of native peoples, especially those who are Christians, and often one is not certain of communicating or understanding the correct message.

The formal dialogue of experts – scholars, theologians – does not predominate. Catholic sources speak of four kinds of interreligious dialogues: the dialogue of life, the dialogue of social action, the dialogue of experts and the dialogue of spiritual sharing. Interreligious understanding results from all these ways that people of differing faith traditions interact.

Looking specifically at ministry among Native Americans, one is aware of a threefold dialogue: of Native peoples with their traditional cultures, of Native peoples with ministers of the church, and of the church with Native peoples and with those who minister among them. The common ground for all is openness to that which is sacred and transcendent. We meet, minister together, work together, share and support one another as spiritual companions because we respect our mutual openness to the transcendent,which for us is God working through the word and spirit in the lives of everyone.

The more Native Catholics recover their cultures in the process of being the church, the more complex inculturation becomes in the effort to preserve and promote what is true and good in their lifeways.While the majority of Native Americans are Christian, inculturation involves ongoing and multifaceted decisions that ultimately Native peoples must make for themselves in the intersection of two traditions: Catholic and Native.Those of us on the outside looking in at times are edified and enriched, and at other times uncertain or frustrated.

Do not confine your mental images to reservations. More than half of Native Americans do not live on reservations. Truly, this ministry directly affects the whole Assistancy. A vision of interrelated apostolates, such as educational efforts fromgrade school to university, and attention to Native ministry in urban pastoral centers, already exists but needs to be expanded. If you have not thought about Native Americans in your urban ministries, it is time that you did.

Also, do not confine your mental images to the rich lessons of interreligious and intercultural dialogue, real as these are. Poverty, abuse and poor health remain for many Native Americans. Speaking at the 1997 Synod of Bishops for America, Bishop Donald Pelotte of Gallup (New Mexico and Arizona), whose father was Abenaki, described the situation this way: “. . . everywhere on our continent indigenous peoples suffer the worst neglect and impoverishment of any population. The pre-eminent measure of the success of the planting of the Gospel in America is the condition of the first peoples who welcomed Europeans and received the word of God in their hearts and minds, each according to their circumstances and abilities. Their condition more often is marked by failure than by success.”

Ten years later, these American Jesuits concur as their report addresses the future: “We have to restart evangelization in its fullest and broadest sense, attentive to the needs of Native peoples and directed at inculturation of the gospel through Native leadership, education, and programs addressing drug and alcohol abuse. To make this happen,we need ministers who have a strong religious identity, are comfortable in their own culture, are free of co-dependent tendencies and can be enthusiastic yet indifferent about their ministry among Native peoples.”

That is why Jesuits in Native American ministry today believe that the health of their relationship with Native peoples is indicative of the general apostolic health of the Assistancy. Commitment to this ministry measures how well Jesuits in North America are living out the commitment of the Society to marginalized people and the commitments to justice, intercultural dialogue, interreligious dialogue, education and the never ending purification of memory and reconciliation.

Borelli serves as the president’s special assistant for Interreligious Initiatives at Georgetown University.

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