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‘Hold On to What Is Good’


by Supreme Knight Carl A. Anderson

Native American Catholic communities demonstrate diversity of culture and the unity of faith

Carl A. Anderson

THIS YEAR, I spent much of Holy Week in the Diocese of Gallup, N.M., encountering the presence of our Catholic faith among Native Americans.

I met Mercy Corps volunteers at the St. Michaels Association for Special Education on the Navajo Reservation; greeted Navajos at the Villa Guadalupe residence of the Little Sisters of the Poor; visited San Estevan del Rey mission church in “Sky City” on the Acoma Pueblo — the scene of a dramatic episode in Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop; and spoke with a missionary priest about his pastoral work on the Zuni reservation.

But the high point was the Easter Vigil at San José Mission on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, after Dorian and I shared dinner with a parish family.

Mass was an extraordinary experience as the church, built in 1699, filled with light during the procession. As Communion ended, the congregation sang a hymn in the native Keresan language.

Later, the governors of the pueblo stood in front of the altar and spoke of the need to continue to live in a way that brought their Catholic faith “in harmony with their Indian way of life,” to treat each other in a Christian way and “to speak to each other with respect.”

The experience brought to life what St. John Paul II had said in Fort Simpson, in the Northwest Territories, three decades ago: “The worthy traditions of the Indian tribes were strengthened and enriched by the Gospel message. ... Thus not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.”

Often, in Columbia and elsewhere, I have written about Pope Francis’ challenge to bring the Gospel to the peripheries. But Holy Week made clear to me that there is a “periphery” in the heart of our own continent — one largely overlooked by many Catholics but where the Gospel has already been lived for centuries.

“Today, people are realizing more and more clearly that we all belong to the one human family,” John Paul II said during his 1987 meeting with native peoples in Phoenix, days before his visit to Fort Simpson.

“Within this family,” he continued, “each people preserves and expresses its own identity and enriches others with its gifts of culture, tradition, customs, stories, song, dance, art and skills.”

An outstanding example of this is Nicholas Black Elk, whose cause for canonization has recently been opened in the Diocese of Rapid City, S.D.

He fought at the Battle of Little Bighorn and later witnessed the death and destruction of the Minneconjou at Wounded Knee. These experiences could have led to a life of anger, hatred and despair.

Instead, after his baptism, he lived a life of hope and reconciliation — for 50 years evangelizing his fellow Native American people.

There is a Pueblo Indian prayer familiar to the Laguna tribe that reads like a poem: “Hold on to what is good, even if it’s a handful of earth. Hold on to what you believe, even if it’s a tree that stands by itself. Hold on to what you must do, even if it’s a long way from here. Hold on to your life, even it it’s easier to let go. Hold on to my hand, even if someday I’ll be gone away from you.”

We encourage our children to read the great literature of pagan Greece such as Homer’s Iliad, not because we somehow endorse such things as King Agamemnon’s bloody sacrifice of his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis, but because such stories tell us something important about human nature and the moral life. We should not hesitate to explore similar lessons in our own history.

Pope Francis recently reminded us, “Each culture that receives the Gospel enriches the Church by showing a new aspect of Christ’s face.”

If we are truly the people “who long to see His face,” then there is one further voyage of discovery, this time close to home, that we have been invited to make.

Vivat Jesus!