Why Are Natives Such Good Catholics?
Alexander J. MacDonald*
The growing faith of the Mi'kmaq people in Nova Scotia, Canada
On entering Holy Family parish church in Eskasoni, Nova Scotia, two things are immediately apparent: this is an unmistakeably Catholic parish; this is an unmistakeably Mi'kmaq parish.
The Mi'kmaq are an indigenous people inhabiting the Maritime provinces on Canada's Atlantic coast. While North American media conglomerates have succeeded in creating the impression that indigenous culture is opposed by the Church, personal experience in Eskasoni dictates quite the opposite. The Church has opened her doors to indigenous people, given to them the love of Christ, but also received from indigenous people rich aspects of their cultural identity. The native voice is heard in the universal Church, joined with a billion others across the globe in one collective voice for humanity.
Of course, the story is a complicated one. We can find examples of some in the Church who, most often with the best of intentions, historically misjudged the value of indigenous culture. French Jesuits who evangelized the Mi'kmaq, however, ensured the survival of the Mi'kmaq language by being the first to consign it to writing. Four hundred years after the conversion of Grand Chief Membertou, the Mi'kmaq continue to hold the faith. In fact, if a native person has any religious affiliation at all, it is almost exclusively Catholic.
Why have the Mi'kmaq taken so well to Catholicism? In Eskasoni weekend masses are often bulging. There is substantial demand for confession. Baptisms are community affairs drawing hundreds of faithful in celebrationslasting for days. After Mass, many faithful stand or kneel in front of statues of St Anne, the Sacred Heart or the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray in silence, while others remain in their pews kneeling to pray the rosary. Amidst a generally apathetic culture quickly losing its faith, Eskasoni's Holy Family Parish is thriving.
In fact, Fr Martin MacDougall, the parish priest, says Holy Family parish in Eskasoni is the fastest growing parish in the diocese. When asked why this is the case, Fr Martin says of the Mi'kmaq that, quite simply, "They know their Creator". He explains that they have an innate sense of being created out of divine love, and that this is answered in the Church.
Last year, in fact, Fr Martin baptised almost too babies, by far the most of any parish in the diocese. In the midst of a materialistic culture of death, he says, "native people are open to the touch of the Creator". Fr Martin speculates that at a philosophical level, "it makes sense that people who have a deep respect for the earth and who are in tune with its natural goodness, will also respect their own life-giving power". In general, indigenous people do not see fertility as a disease. What God has made is good.
There are many other reasons why the faith finds good fertile soil among indigenous people. Historically, the great congregations like the Jesuits and Dominicans sacrificed their very blood to evangelize indigenous people. Canadian martyrs, led by Sts Jean de Brébeuf and Anthony Daniel, brought the message of Christ's salvation and proceeded to build schools, homes and hospitals all of which generally vastly improved their lives. Generations of sisters of St Martha and Notre Dame dedicated their lives to give education and improve health for the indigenous. While this history was sometimes difficult, communities like Eskasoni are emerging with their culture and language intact.
Sr Veronica Matthews is a Sister of St Martha who has worked in Eskasoni as a nurse for more than 30 years. As the first Mi'kmaq woman to become a nurse and a professed religious, she understands the complicated relationship between the Mi'kmaq and the Church. Some within the Church did not have the respect for their culture that we see today, but in general, the Church has been a welcoming and dedicated mother to the Mi'kmaq.
When asked why they have such profound faith, Sr Veronica has a simple answer: "Basically, most people here really believe that God takes care of them". In addition, she says that "We have very strong traditions and our traditions are spiritual". While secular society sees "tradition" in negative terms, the Mi'kmaq people rejoice in such and are attempting to reclaim what has been lost of their own traditions. Sr Veronica also describes how the Mi'kmaq sense God in Creation. "We pray in Creation. My father would walk in the forest and remark how the trees extended their hands in praise of God".
Sr Veronica further indicates how Mi'kmaq tradition reveres elders, including the parish priest and leaders of the Church, especially the pope. They are not afraid of hierarchy. Elders are respected as people of wisdom whose advice is sought and who are socially honoured. Even in reading as a lector at Holy Mass, a younger Mi'kmaq pays deference to an elder and ensures that the elder receives the greater respect.
Another reason for Mi'kmaq devotion to the faith is the attention given to indigenous communities by the hierarchy of the Church. Sr Veronica recalls the visit of John Paul II to the indigenous people of Canada in 1984. More recently, Pope Benedict XVI sent a representative to meet the Mi'kmaq people of Nova Scotia. Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect for the Congregation for Bishops, celebrated the 400th anniversary of the baptism of Grand Chief Membertou on Chapel Island, a short distance away from Eskasoni.
When asked how the Mi'kmaq respond to this gesture, Sr Veronica has difficulty containing herself. "It was incredible," she says. "We could not believe that the Vatican
did this. It shows that we are a part of them, that they truly care for us and that
they are a part of us".
Besides this attention given by the hierarchy to indigenous people, the Mi'kmaq seem to be especially attracted by the sacraments. They do not see an artificial distinction between the physical and spiritual worlds. Creation is good. It makes sense for God to incorporate us in His plan for salvation and sanctification on a physical level. Sr Veronica explains that holy water and holy oils are used by Mi'kmaq in great quantities. They love to be steeped in the great traditions of the Church, are moved to pray in the presence of statues, fill their homes with icons of Our Lady and are drawn naturally to the practice of pilgrimage. "We are great travellers," she says and indicates that St Anne de Beaupre, near Quebec City, is a frequent destination. She explains that "As the grandmother of the Lord, St Anne is a key saint for the Mi'kmaq. She is an elder, a woman of wisdom, and so the Mi'kmaq people have a great devotion to her".
The Church has also provided the Mi'kmaq with indigenous role models, including Bl. Kateri Tekakwi tha, whose statue stands to the side of the altar at Holy Family parish church. The Patroness of the Americas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, adopted the traditional dress of an indigenous virgin girl and effected one of the greatest mass conversions in history, some 14 million converts.
Efforts by the Church to incorporate elements of Mi'kmaq culture are obvious in liturgies celebrated in Eskasoni. The altar is covered with a cloth richly. decorated in Mi'kmaq beads. A large eagle feather, which cannot ever touch the ground, sits next to the Missal. The Our Father is prayed in Mi'kmaq and the choir sings with carefree enthusiasm in the Mi'kmaq language and rhythmic style. The harmonic blend provides visual evidence that the Church accepts all that is true wherever it is found, while continuing to proclaim the Catholic truth of Divine Revelation.
Ironies abound in Eskasoni. As one of the poorest communities in Nova Scotia, it is also one of the richest in faith. While secular authorities have prohibited Catholic education in the rest of Nova Scotia, because Eskasoni has control over its own education, it has maintained Catholic aspects in its curriculum. And while they experience elevated levels of crime, addiction and suicide in their community, they are people of great humility who know they are also in need of a Saviour.
The ultimate irony is that 400 years ago, European missionaries evangelized the Mi'kmaq — today, however, the Mi'kmaq have the opportunity to evangelize the descendants of those who evangelized them.
*Seminarian of the Diocese of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, resident at the Venerable English College, Rome.
Weekly Edition in English
6 October 2010, page 16
L'Osservatore Romano is the newspaper of the Holy See.
The Weekly Edition in English is published for the US by:
The Cathedral Foundation
L'Osservatore Romano English Edition
880 Park Avenue
P.O. Box 777
Baltimore, MD 21203
Phone: (443) 263-0248
Fax: (443) 524-3155