International gathering pushes reconciliation forward says Archbishop Smith

An International Conference on Catholic Indigenous Ministry was held recently in Washington, DC, bringing together Catholic bishops and Indigenous representatives from Australia, New Zealand, the United States, and Canada. (Submitted photo)

By Peter Stockland, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith says he left a recent international conference on Indigenous-Church relations “very encouraged,” but cautioned the Washington, D.C., event was one step on a long path ahead.

“We basically spent the week sharing our experiences around certain themes: what’s been the history of the relationship between the Church and Indigenous people, what are the episcopal structures for dealing with it, how are we dealing with the question of enculturation, especially in the liturgy? As we were listening to each other, commonalities kept arising,” Smith said of the mid-September gathering.

Five Canadians — two Catholic archbishops and three Indigenous representatives — joined similarly structured delegations from the U.S., Australia and New Zealand at what was billed as an International Conference on Catholic Indigenous Ministry, an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Smith says it was when the formal agenda neared its close and free conversation flowed that he felt the most productive exchanges took place.

“We started to just speak freely and hear from the Indigenous delegates from all these other countries what we’ve been hearing in Canada for quite some time: ‘We want to speak to the bishops. We want to bring our needs to the bishops.’ It was a heartfelt plea to engage with the bishops going forward, so we agreed we have to keep this going,” the Edmonton Archbishop said.

An immediate first step for the Canadian group is a debriefing session sometime this month so the group, comprising Smith, Saskatoon Bishop Mark Hagemoen as well as Indigenous participants Graydon Nicholas, Rosella Kinoshameg and Giselle Marion, can share their experiences and ideas for what comes next.

But Smith said it was clear from the meeting other countries are looking to Canada as a “beacon of hope.” The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a historic apology by the federal government and the profound effects of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage of penance across the country in 2022, have fuelled a sense of progress for the Canadian Church. The U.S. contributors in particular intimated they are lagging behind on reconciliation with Native Americans, he noted.

“I think they do see it that way,” Smith told The Catholic Register. “They see that we’ve really grappled with it — having the delegation go to Rome, having the Pope come to Canada — and that we’ve been making all the commitments all along. For sure, they see us ahead.”

He emphasized, however, that the necessity and urgency around Indigenous-Church relations is now a global reality that encompasses South America, Africa and everywhere the “repercussions of colonization” are being recognized after decades of being pushed far down the agenda.

“The Australian group kept citing again and again a statement made by St. John Paul II back in the ’80s in Alice Springs that the Church in Australia cannot be fully the Church that Jesus wants His Church to be unless Indigenous people are fully part of its life,” he said.

Nicholas underscored that by referencing St. John Paul II’s axiom that “Christ Himself is Indian,” Smith said.

“With all of that and everything Pope Francis said in Canada, the question becomes how we can pick up on it and really continue to develop. We can say, this is how you do it: Listen to one another,” Smith said.

He acknowledged the hope inspired by Indigenous Catholic leaders being so willing to work with bishops must be carefully balanced against the realities of Indigenous politics, but said there was a clear commitment at the Washington conference to go forward as Catholics together.