Bishops discuss developing plan for Native American, Alaska Native ministry

Bishops discuss developing plan for Native American, Alaska Native ministry

A statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized, is seen at Our Lady of the Island Shrine in Manorville, N.Y., March 25, 2021. (Credit: Gregory A. Shemitz/CNS.)

U.S. bishops were asked June 17 to consider authorizing development of a new formal statement and comprehensive vision for Native American and Alaskan Native ministry.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. bishops were asked June 17 to consider authorizing development of a new formal statement and comprehensive vision for Native American and Alaskan Native ministry, since the last one approved was over 40 years ago.

Bishop James S. Wall of Gallup, New Mexico, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs, said Catholic Native American leaders at a summit requested that a complete pastoral plan be developed and presented to the general assembly of bishops.

“During the summit, the Catholic Native leaders presented their concern that there was a perceived lack of interest in Catholic Native ministry by the Catholic Church in the United States,” said Wall, addressing prelates via Zoom on the second day of their three-day spring general assembly, held virtually due to the pandemic.

“A pastoral plan will help reassure Catholic Natives that their ministry has a high priority in the church,” he said. “The last time the general assembly passed a major pastoral plan for Native Americans was 1977.”

Much has changed in those 44 years, Wall said, including approaches to racism, the canonization St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first North American Indian saint, and new approaches to aspects of social justice in native communities.

“Pope Francis, in his writings and talks, has made Indigenous Peoples a priority in the universal church,” Wall said.

He added that there is no guide for the Catholic Church in the United States for approaching, understanding and promoting of Catholic Native ministry.

“A comprehensive statement will help the Catholic Church in the United States to respond to Native ministry. There are some concerns of the Native communities that have never been addressed by the general assembly, such as reconciliation from the boarding school period,” he said.

Recently, the discovery of the unmarked graves of 215 children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, Canada, operated by the Catholic Church, gave way to discussion about past abuses at other church-run schools for American Indian children throughout the U.S. and Canada. That period of history is rarely talked about.

“The pastoral plan will be the first time that an important issue such as this has been addressed adding to the benefit of (Native American) relations with the church in the United States,” Wall said.

While various bishops, many of whom had previously worked with American Indian populations, verbally supported the measure during the virtual meeting, it was formally voted on, with the tally to be announced June 18.

Bishops also discussed the effects of COVID-19 on the American Indian population as well as the importance of ministry for urban populations of American Indians.

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