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Spring Books

Assessing what took place for the gospel


By Vincent McNally
University of Alberta Press, 443 pages, $27.95


People engaged in the work of evangelization with those of different cultures need to listen sincerely for the gift and the ministry being offered by “the other.” Dialogue with open hearts and minds refuses to predetermine outcomes.

Ralph Partida of the Native Spirituality Council of the San Bernardino, Calif., diocese said that this openness often is not found in dialogue with Native Americans. “The church hasn’t accepted [their] stories,” he said. “Native ways are looked at as pagan. … The church gives lip service then goes back to the old ways. It’s ‘do it my way or no way at all.’ ”

Reciprocity provides an alternate approach. “Native Americans bring a rich prayer tradition to the church,” Partida said. “They are more sensitive to the elements. … They are aware of everything in the surrounding and are in tune with what the creator has given us.” In other words, Native Americans have much to offer the rest of us, and a richer, more effective mutual ministry can result when we live on a two-way street.

History can provide us with painful, though necessary, lessons that will help us come to better understand why the dominant religious cultures of North America have often failed tragically to listen with a nonpatronizing and open heart and mind to the story of Native Americans. Indeed, in many of these encounters profound injustices and human rights violations have occurred. Well-written history can bring us to our senses.

Fr. Vincent McNally, professor of church history at Sacred Heart School of Theology, near Milwaukee, offers such history. It is a strongly critical but generally objective account of a missionary order’s long-term relationship with the Native people of British Columbia. Native missions assume a major portion of the early narrative of the Catholic church in that Canadian province. His account, however, is prototypical of the missionary story in many other places. Its lessons are timely and serve to illuminate a wide ecumenical audience.

The Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a French order originating in the wine-rich region of Provence, viewed their mission to the Pacific Northwest (which for a time in the mid-1800s included parts of Washington and Oregon) as “the Lord’s distant vineyard.” McNally uses historical empiricism in his extensive research, combined with scant sentimentality but a deep pastoral concern. He concludes that non-native cultural insensitivity through the entire missionary encounter over the past century and a half resulted in a less-than-abundant harvest. Many remain in denial, even today, of the truth and the serious damage that actually resulted.

It is clear that McNally has an honorable and constructive purpose. He strongly affirms Christian faith and evangelization. Yet, he believes Christians must come to terms with their missionary history. The church needs to own its mistakes, learn from them and undertake reconciliation, renewal and healing with those who were so often misunderstood and hurt.

McNally’s book provides more than historical recitation. His assessments of what took place provide an important and serious wake-up call. He advocates a fundamental re-examination of traditionally accepted evangelization. To read this book is to be confronted with a reality, shorn of propaganda and pious sentiment, that is both a bitter pill and a harbinger of hope.

The Canadian Oblates’ desire for reconciliation with the Native people took concrete form in 1991 when the order issued an official apology on behalf of 1,200 Oblates then living. It noted their “sorrow for the part they had all played, however inadvertent and naive that participation might have been, in the setting up and maintaining of a system that stripped others of not only their lands but also their traditions.” The order requested an opportunity to establish a “renewed covenant of solidarity” and pledged to continue to “journey with” the people as they had always intended.

Subsequently, the Oblates have been hit with hundreds of lawsuits claiming both personal and cultural abuse. The price to be paid for apology can be extremely high.

McNally respects the apology and serious attempts on the part of many Christians in Canada to intentionally make good on their words. There is hope so long as future dialogue reflects mutual respect and an open admission, as Pope John Paul recently reminded all Catholics, that “grave forms of injustice” have been done in the church’s past in the name of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The author calls for ecumenical inclusiveness in this commitment to renewal. Competitive denominational activity has often been at odds with Christ’s teachings and witness. Bigotry and hate, narrowness and intolerance, have more often been reflected in the missions than a gospel message of radical inclusiveness. The gospel, not the institutional church, is central to the Christian message.

It is time to make amends and to begin anew.

The Rev. Wayne A. Holst is a lecturer in religion and culture at the University of Calgary. His e-mail address is wholst@ucalgary.ca

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001