Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 10, 2003
Look to native people for pure spirituality
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
A pressing reality affecting the Catholic Church's mission in the modern world is its interaction with people of different cultures, says Father Lawrence O'Keefe, J.C.D., president of the Canon Law Society of America (CLSA).
O'Keefe, who has been a priest in the Diocese of Gallup, New Mexico for 33 years, related some of his experiences as judicial vicar in the Gallup diocese, which encompasses at least seven native-American tribes including a large Navajo population.
They included dealing with a marriage annulment petition from a native-American couple he called "Ralph" and "Pearl" which, he said, "had to be evaluated from a native cultural mindset." From the church's perspective, the "shotgun" marriage appeared to be invalid because the man was forced to marry the woman in the face of threats from the woman's parents. But a strong case was made that it was a valid marriage nevertheless because it was rooted within the couple's native culture.
The annulment was granted, but O'Keefe wondered what the ruling might be in a similar case in the future if the tribunal judges happened to be (Laguna Pueblo) native-Americans with doctorates in canon law "and knows that culture inside out."
"One of the things I've learned from this interaction is a real sense of humility," he said. "Don't be so cocksure you've got the truth by the tail and that you perfectly understand something when your really don't understand it at all."
O'Keefe's voice also trembled as he spoke of one of the most moving moments of his life, which occurred at a meeting in Gallup of bishops and priests from Arizona and New Mexico.
One of the bishops asked a Navajo man, who had been invited to the meeting, what the Church could do to be more effective in its evangelization of native peoples. The native-American looked at all the dignitaries and said, "You know, we Navajo are a very simple people and we believe that God is very simple. We believe that Jesus is very simple. So when you talk to us about Jesus, talk to us in simple words because when you speak to us of him simply, it touches our hearts - he touches our hearts."
O'Keefe said he felt very small after the man's answer and that he felt then - "as I do now" - like crying. "The words were so humbling. There is so much that I personally have learned from these people. And with the well-springs of spirituality that these people have, they can teach us so much."