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The Jesuits of Canada actively promote justice and reconciliation with others and with the environment. Thus, Erik Oland, SJ, in his Pastoral Letter of 2023 that gives an update on the progress of our mission as a province, invites us to engage more deeply in walking with Indigenous communities. The provincial reminds us that this implies “humble listening, discreet support and continued growth in the virtues expressed in Pilgrims Together: We are called to deeper humility; we are called to more attentive listening; we are called to mutuality in encounter; we are called to hospitality; pilgrims walk slowly and deliberately; we desire to model our way of proceeding on the process of Ignatian spiritual accompaniment; we are called to authenticity; we are called to integrate the four UAPs.”

Today, nearly a year later, how have Jesuits in Canada, as a province, made progress on this pilgrimage? Peter Bisson, SJ, Provincial Assistant for Justice, Ecology and Indigenous Relations, takes a look at how far we have come and what next steps can be taken by both individuals and the province as a whole. Fr. Bisson also highlights how much we can learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, particularly in terms of spirituality. At the heart of this work are relationships and listening.

“In my opinion, we are learning a new (for us) way of being and acting, one whose principal quality is that of Annotation 15 in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: ‘…the one who gives the Exercises must neither lean nor incline to one side or the other; but rather, like the pointer of a scale in equilibrium, let the Creator act directly with the creature, and the creature with its Creator and Lord.’”

What is happening among Indigenous Catholics more than a year after Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage?

I see two main movements among Indigenous Catholics. On the one hand, it is energizing to be recognized by the Pope as Indigenous Catholics, with their experience of grief, their struggles, their identity, their unique contributions to the Church. On the other hand, there’s also a certain frustration with the Church in Canada over the slowness with which the bishops, on a collective level, have responded to requests for apologies to Indigenous peoples.

Pope Francis’s historic apology in Maskwacis, Alberta, 2022. (PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP/Getty Images)

In this context, I believe that there are two main dynamics among Indigenous Catholics in Canada: spiritual self-determination and reconciliation.

Reconciliation refers to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, apologies from the Church and the government, compensation and reparations. Reconciliation also encompasses Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations and power dynamics. It’s a dynamic of reconciliation within the dynamic of self-determination.

Indigenous people are talking about a renewal, a movement of economic, political and social self-determination in their relations with non-Indigenous people. But they are also speaking about a movement of spiritual self-determination.

In the Jesuits’ relationship with Indigenous people, I see mostly the dynamic of reconciliation. But since the Pope’s visit, I’m beginning to see aspects of the dynamic of renewal among Indigenous Catholics, namely, a spiritual self-determination within the Church, articulated in an intentional way.

The Jesuits support these dynamics.

Do you have a concrete example?

In September 2023, there was a meeting near Ottawa of Indigenous Catholic leaders and a few allies, like me. There were about 25 of us. The aim was for the former to share their experience as Indigenous Catholics and leaders in the Church. It was also a way for these leaders to meet and get to know each other in person.

Rosella Kinoshameg, DOS, leading a ceremony with Jesuits.

So they shared their challenges, opportunities and strengths. The energy was good. I found for the first time, in my experience of this type of meeting, that beyond the criticisms and complaints (which are important and true), there was joy in being Indigenous and Catholic. You have to understand that it’s often difficult in an Indigenous context to be Catholic, and in a Catholic context to be Indigenous. To rejoice in this identity was a powerful spiritual experience for everyone.

I think it’s important for us as a Jesuit province to support this new energy, but as genuine collaborators, since the protagonists are the Indigenous people. For example, we can sometimes help make the link with the hierarchical Church, with the bishops in particular.

At the end of the September meeting, the group made two decisions. The first was to hold a similar but larger meeting in the spring of 2025. And the second was to pray before starting to plan: the rosary is recited online once a month in Indigenous languages.

How are Jesuits in Canada participating in this movement of self-determination? How can we also learn?

Not all Jesuits are involved in this movement, but for me it’s certainly the main form of my commitment. This is also the dynamic behind the discernment in common that is currently being lived out by Jesuits in Northern Ontario, where we provide our main pastoral accompaniment of Indigenous communities.

Our work is focused on relationships, the gradual decolonization of our identity, and our accompaniment of Indigenous people, especially Catholic Indigenous people. We support the self-determination of Indigenous Catholics within the Church, helping them to contribute their own spiritual gifts to the life of the Church.

After COP28, as the Pope seeks to promote integral ecological conversion, I see that we need the spiritual gifts of Indigenous people. Indigenous spiritualities and their spiritual relationship with the land can make a huge contribution to our ecological conversion. Indigenous cultures, unlike Western cultures, have never desacralized creation. We have much to learn from them.

Also, for Indigenous people, everything is sacred. While the Society’s first Universal Apostolic Preference is to show the way to God, through Ignatian spirituality but not exclusively, I see that we have a lot to learn from Indigenous people. They are never afraid to be spiritual in their ways of thinking and acting.

I think there’s a lot of room for constructive collaboration with Catholic or traditional Indigenous people.

What concrete steps can Jesuits, communities, works and individuals take to respond to the call of the provincial’s pastoral letter?

Stained glass of St. Jean de Brébeuf and Wendat Joseph Chiwatenwha, Martyrs’ Shrine, Ontario (Courtesy of Martyrs Shrine).

The key is relationships. At the provincial level, Indigenous people are increasingly involved in decision-making bodies or are at least part of consultative bodies, such as in the discernment of the next provincial or in the Commission for the Social Apostolate. We also have Indigenous expressions in all the major liturgies of the province, such as the rite of purification or the eagle feather for the readings. It’s becoming quite normal. These are gestures, but gestures form ritual and ritual forms consciousness. We also work with lawyer Bill Blakeney on abuse cases, drawing on the Jesuit Archives in Canada.

But not everyone is able to have friendships or collaborate with Indigenous people. So for the rest of us, one way to walk alongside Indigenous people is to celebrate important moments, like the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation… Another way is through visits, planned in collaboration with Indigenous community tourism centres.

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