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Damian CostelloApril 25, 2022
A sunrise ceremony, including the Native American purification ritual called smudging, at the Tekakwitha Conference in Fargo, N.D., on July 26, 2014. The conference was named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized in the Catholic Church. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)A sunrise ceremony, including the Native American purification ritual called smudging, at the Tekakwitha Conference in Fargo, N.D., on July 26, 2014. The conference was named for St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to be canonized in the Catholic Church. (CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec)

Editor’s note: This article is part of The Conversation with America Media, offering diverse perspectives on important and contested issues in the life of the church. Read other views on the traditional Latin Mass, as well as news coverage of the topic, here.

I was in a big city at a gathering organized by an Indigenous spiritual leader. It started with a ceremony. Like all Indigenous ceremonies that I have had the privilege to attend, it was reverent, precise and beautiful. The smoke of sage and the sound of ancient chant wafted over us, and the city lights became like stars.

The ceremony was a Eucharistic adoration at Ste. Kateri au Centre-Ville, an apostolate serving the Indigenous population in the Archdiocese of Montreal. And one of the things the Ojibwe leader, Roger Twance, talked about was his love for the Tridentine Latin Mass. “I appreciate Native spirituality," he told me after. "But when we sing in Latin, something resonates deeply within me. My whole soul sings. It is like a spiritual culmination that is found in the sacrifice of the Mass.”

Five years ago, adoration in an Indigenous context and Mr. Twance’s perspective on the Latin Mass would have surprised me. But during those years, I have had a number of similar conversations in Indigenous contexts.

Looking at the Latin Mass from an Indigenous way of knowing brings out its beauty and keeps it in proper perspective.

Most significant were conversations with three prominent Indigenous spiritual leaders who grew up Catholic but now focused on traditional Indigenous ways. All three elders expressed frustration with various church teachings and anger at the abuses at residential schools. Two were no longer Catholic and wanted nothing to do with the church, and the one who was still Catholic also spoke highly of the inculturated Native American liturgy. But all expressed nostalgia for the Latin Mass. One even described a deep congruence between Indigenous ceremonies and the traditional Latin liturgy.

These unexpected conversations helped me sort out my own background and offered a lens to look anew at some of the impasses we face as Catholics in our polarized postmodern context. Looking at the Latin Mass from an Indigenous way of knowing brings out its beauty and keeps it in proper perspective.

[Related: Black Elk, the Lakota medicine man turned Catholic teacher, is promoted for sainthood]

I grew up in what could be called a “proto-trad” parish. The Extraordinary Form was still not available at that time, so “Father Frank” incorporated as many of the liturgical practices from before the Second Vatican Council as possible. My memories are always seen through clouds of incense smoke. And as an altar boy, I can remember pinching my forefinger and thumb together after the consecration, to keep any particles of the sacred host from falling to the floor, in imitation of Father Frank.

I was sometimes confused by what felt like an obsession with details and rubrics, but I eventually got the big picture: Ceremony mattered. It is the best way for a group of people to engage with God, as the attention to detail unifies everyone present into a single body. Details like pinching the forefinger and thumb reveal whole worlds of meaning—for example, that the body of Christ is so sacred not even a crumb should be missed.

The revitalization of ceremonial life in Indigenous communities and the resurgence of the Latin Mass both reflect a desire to return to a more holistic way of knowing, characteristic of our ancestors.

This feeling became clearer to me as I learned about Indigenous ceremonies. Praying all night at a Native American church ceremony or all week at a sun dance took me out of my preconceived notions and allowed me to surrender to this ceremonial way of knowing. The absolute focus on the actions of the ceremony, the rich detail, and layer upon layer of meaning opened up another world that absorbed and redefined this world.

I have seen the similarities between Indigenous ceremonies and Catholic Mass, but I was surprised to meet any Native practitioners who did as well. Most fascinating was one Indigenous elder’s opinion that Latin resonates with the holistic character of the Indigenous languages. That is, our everyday English language is not up to the task of conveying deep spiritual truths. Older languages, unsullied by our mechanized, digitized way of life, can.

Unquestionably, there are differences in the purpose and sacrifice asked of participants in ceremonies such as the sun dance and Latin Mass, but there is a similar way of engaging the spirits and engaging God. The witness of Nicholas Black Elk, who is now being promoted for sainthood, draws this out. Black Elk, one of the most important figures in Native American cultural revitalization during the 20th century, sang his grandchildren to sleep with Latin hymns from the high Mass. “I understand why Black Elk loved Latin so much,” Mr. Twance shared with me. “It has a connection to traditional Native chant."

Put it all together, and an interesting parallel emerges. The ongoing revitalization of ceremonial life in Indigenous communities and recent resurgence of the Latin Mass in many Catholic communities both reflect a desire to return to a more holistic way of knowing, characteristic of our ancestors. We all, in other words, need ceremony.

What is our way forward? Allow both the Latin Mass and the Ordinary Form, engage them charitably, and do your best to unlearn the ideological baggage that fuels both sides of the divide. Each emphasizes different aspects of the Eucharist, the source and summit of our faith. The Ordinary Form helps me to focus on the people of God, and the Latin Mass reinforces the real presence. But both reveal the heavenly liturgy that is our destination.

[Related: I just don’t get the controversy over the traditional Latin Mass.]

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