Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 13, 2000
History of B.C. Oblates offers a new look at traditional approach to spreading Gospel
The Lord's Distant Vineyard: A History of the Oblates and the Catholic Community in British Columbia, by Vincent McNally, Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2000. 443 pages.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
"At this moment in the history of Canada," Church leaders declared at an Ottawa news conference in September, "it seems evident that as a matter of urgency we are called to work for peace in the relationship between the aboriginal peoples of this land and the later arriving majority of people who live here."
The Church leaders continue: "The biblical imperative of jubilee sheds a challenging light on the unresolved issues of aboriginal justice and land rights in Canada. It is clear that the recognition and implementation of justice and rights is central to the health of aboriginal communities and to the healing of the relationship between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people".
History can provide us with painful, though necessary lessons to help us better understand why, from the beginning, the dominant churches of Canada often failed tragically to listen sincerely and in a non-patronizing way to the First Nations.
History can also help us discover why noble and generous attempts at cross-cultural evangelization and advocacy for the rights of the First Peoples have too frequently come to naught. Well-written, truthful history can bring us to our senses.
Father Vincent McNally, professor of Church history at Sacred Heart School of Theology, near Milwaukee, offers such a history. He presents 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 there. His account, however, is prototypical of the missionary story in many other places. His 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 as "the Lord's distant vineyard."
McNally's book provides more than historical recitation. He well recounts the story but his assessments of what took place provide an important and serious wake up call.
He advocates a fundamental reexamination 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 at Lac Ste. Anne 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 order has 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 to make good on their words. There is hope so long as future dialogue reflects mutual respect and an open admission that "grave forms of injustice" have been done in the Church's past in the name of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Pope John Paul II).
The author calls for ecumenical inclusivism in this commitment to renewal. Competitive denominational activity has often been at odds with Christ's teachings and witness.
We live in a special moment when it is possible to reverse much of the past history of unjust relations between the First Nations of Canada and the rest of us. It is time to make amends and to begin anew.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst is a lecturer in religion and culture at the University of Calgary.)