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Going native

NCR Staff

If the pope said today, “Ordain married men,” Gallup, N. M., Bishop Donald E. Pelotte would schedule the ceremony for tomorrow. Not simply because his diocese is short of priests, but because the married men’s ordination would add an essential ingredient of inculturation to a diocese that’s 53 percent Native American.

Creating a Native American leadership was his vision 14 years ago and it hasn’t changed.

A priest of the Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament , Pelotte is an ecclesiologist by training with a Ph.D. from Fordham University. He’s the author of John Courtney Murray: Theologian in Conflict (Paulist).

In 1986, he was given the challenge of a lifetime.

The Waterville, Maine, native -- his father was of the Abenaki tribe of the Algonquin Nation -- was plucked out of Cleveland, where he was his congregation’s provincial, and named coadjutor bishop of Gallup, N.M. He succeeded Bishop Jerome J. Hastrich in 1990.

The challenge: What’s an ecclesiologist going to do in a diocese with a population of less than one Catholic per square mile (40,000 Catholics in 55,000 square miles); where in the decades immediately ahead most of the pastors and women religious will have retired; where half the Catholics -- Navajos and Hopis particularly -- don’t live anywhere near a town.

“How were we going to maintain the presence of a Catholic community? That was the question,” said Pelotte.

Pelotte’s answer: Try a different methodology, so that the Navajo and Hopi, the Laguna and Acoma, the Apache and Kiowa themselves take over.

No sooner was he installed than he called in his friend, Jesuit Fr. John Hatcher of the Rapid City, S. D., diocese, and with Gallup’s presbyteral council and leadership team, delved into adapting Hatcher’s “Builders of the New Earth” to local needs.

It’s a program Hatcher developed under Rapid City’s late Bishop Harold Dimmerling as a training program for permanent deacons. It was metamorphosing into a lay ministry program and Pelotte wanted it to serve both purposes: calling forth potential lay ministers and all the while identifying those men among them who might be candidates for the diaconate. Franciscan Fr. Blane Grein spearheaded the program for the diocese.

“Builders of the New Earth” is a non-classroom, “more a talking circle approach,” to training, said Pelotte.

A decade later the diocese has three Navajos among its 35 deacons (one Navajo deacon had been ordained by Hastrich), a Kiowa deacon, a Navajo deacon candidate (a second candidate died at Christmas), and “Builders” programs are underway among the Acoma, Laguna and Apache -- and in the Hispanic community.

Equally to the point, Pelotte has commissioned about 50 lay ministers and will soon commission another 20.

The foregoing makes it all seem easy. It wasn’t and it isn’t, Pelotte said. And when he says, “the [Native American] people are not forthcoming because they’ve been hurt so much in the past,” he only has to look back to last October when the Hopi Nation canceled a Hopi-hosted meeting at which he was to meet with 30 Hopis. A tribal traditional leader objected to the tribe’s hosting meetings with the Christians. (Pelotte and Keams Canyon’s patient and persistent Vincentian Fr. Clayton Kilburn and a willing group of Hopis, will try again -- next time with Pelotte as host.)

With the Navajo, too, said Pelotte, “it took time before they realized I meant what I said when I told them, ‘You are church and we need you. You are the leaders.’ ” Change comes slowly.

“But when I ordained the two full-blooded Navajo deacons, and they get up and preach the homily in Navajo, you can see the tears of the elders. Some of the friars preached in Navajo, but now they are hearing it for the first time from one of their own.”

Only about five percent of the Navajo are Catholic or Christian (only 11 percent of the local population of 355,000 is Catholic), “but tribes like the Acoma and Laguna are 95 percent Catholic,” said Pelotte.

Pelotte realized early -- as the first missioners to the reservations learned -- you can’t call a meeting or form a school when the people you want to attend radiate out 50 or 100 miles distant on every point of the compass from the nearest meeting place.

Gallup’s answer: Get everyone involved, start at the bottom and innovate like mad. Develop programs that can teach in new ways. Learn how to transmit them long distances, using every available technology, and then use your powers of persuasion to piggyback on existing telecommunications systems in local hospitals and colleges, in places like Page, Farmington, Holbrook, Winslow, Tuba City, all hour-after-hour-after-hour driving time from Gallup.

Even when skipping over the distances with technology, patience is a requirement.

“There are plenty of glitches,” said Pelotte. “We recently tried to do a class in Gallup and connect with Page, but it didn’t connect. Everyone was terribly frustrated.” When the buttons were pushed, Page’s technology wasn’t compatible with that at the University of New Mexico in Gallup.

Pelotte also has daunting distance problems when he wants to get around.

The diocese’s first plane, a Skymaster 182, was donated by St. Louis-based Wings of Hope, an organization that accepts used planes from corporations and repairs them for mission dioceses of all denominations worldwide.

Eight years later, with help from the Extension Society, Pelotte’s own fundraising, and a Skymaster trade-in, the diocese bought a Cessna 340. Its big advantage is that it is pressurized and can be used in winter.

Retired commercial pilot Jim Pomeroy of Gallup’s Cathedral Parish is one of Pelotte’s pilots. Diocesan finance director and permanent deacon Jim Hoy is logging the necessary hours to get his license and become No. 2.

Pelotte is not interested in becoming a pilot. Any spare time he has is spent reading and listening to classical music.

National Catholic Reporter, January 21, 2000