The Native American Catholic

Where the Two Roads Meetby Christopher VecseyUniv. of Notre Dame Press. 400p $40

In the late 19th century and well into the 20th, the Oblates and, later, Jesuit and other missionaries used an illustrated scroll to catechize the Indians they encountered. This scroll depicted two roads, one good and the other evil. The good road was the path of Catholicism that led the saved to the glories of heaven, while the evil road, bearing the weight of Protestants, non-Christians and some Indians, terminated in the rather graphically depicted fires of hell. While there were paths here and there that allowed a person to cross from one road to the other, the roads themselves never met.

A professor of religion and Native American studies at Colgate University, Christopher Vecsey uses the image of the two roads throughout his three-volume series, American Indian Catholics, and especially in Where the Two Roads Meet, the third and final work of the series (following On the Padres’ Trail and The Paths of Kateri’s Kin). Vecsey has set for himself a monumental task: to chronicle the long and complex history of the meeting of these two roads, Catholicism and Native American religions. He has succeeded well. In this third volume, he details the history of the Jesuit missions among the Lakota (Sioux) of western South Dakota as an exemplar of the changes from the late 19th century until the 1960’s, when the two roads were forbidden by missionaries to meetdespite the fact that many Lakota did walk both roads in a rather compartmentalized mannerto the oftentimes bumpy meetings of the roads in more recent times. From here, Vecsey chronicles the history of Native American Catholic religious and lay leaders, focusing on their biographies. He also examines the radical transformations in theological and missiological approaches wrought by the Second Vatican Council. He chronicles the inception and growth of the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions, the history of dialogue between the Jesuits and the medicine men of the Rosebud Reservation and the history of the Tekakwitha Conference. The latter, an association originally established for religious ministering to Indians, transformed itself into an organization of American Indian Catholics. Vecsey concludes with a beguiling twin portrait of a Native Catholic and missionary priest. In all of this he provides a rich variety of carefully researched historical data and first-person testimonials from Native peoples, theologians, missionaries and outside admirers and critics of the church.

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Vecsey also considers the larger issues that have developed with the meeting of these two roads: the question of the universality of Christianity in the face of cultural and religious pluralism; the value of Christianity itself in the face of a group who have been alienated from their cultural and religious traditions, often by that very institution; and the accusation that church reform is simply a marketing ploy to win back adherents. Vecsey also considers the conundrum of the historical dearth of indigenous leaders in the Catholic Church, the conflicts experienced by those Indians who do minister in the church, the tensions between the laity and the hierarchy and the personal and communal struggles of Indian people themselves with the legacy of the boarding schools, poverty, substance abuse and their struggle for identity and meaning.

While one may be tempted to ask whether the church is ultimately the cause or cure for these problems, Vecsey, carefully maintaining a stance of neutrality while giving voice to opinions from all sides, demonstrates that it has been both plague and panacea. Sister Marie-Therese Archambault, O.S.F., a Lakota (Sioux) sums up the situation well: As a native Catholic the very faith you embrace is one that was used to destroy you, that collaborated with the government in cultural genocide.... This is the terrible irony of being Native American and Catholic. The second glorious irony is that from the time of the earliest missionaries in New France, it was clear that many Native converts, and at times non-coverts, proved themselves more dedicated Christians than the flocks the priests left behind in Europe or at the United States border.

Vecsey sees the future of the church and its most positive face in the contemporary movements of dialogue and inculturation. Increasingly the church has presented itself to other religious traditions as an equal dialogue partneras ready to listen as to teach. Inculturation is the careful, consensual incorporation of all that is good from another cultural and religious tradition into Catholic theology and worship. In this process, the church asks that the integrity of its own traditions be respected. In the larger American culture, in which tradition is held in disdain, it is ironic that the Native American populationsonce among those least understood and respected by the churchtoday better understand and respect the important role of tradition in Catholicism because of their own deep rootedness in tradition.

Where the Two Roads Meet is in fact about two conversions: the conversion of Indian people to Catholicism and the conversion of Catholicism itself from an exclusionary path suspicious of anything outside to the road of deeper understanding, respect and integration. The book shows that neither conversion is complete, and that despite well-intentioned strivings for perfection, there remain deep flaws, chasms and contradictions.

Unfortunately, this work sometimes presents reports that border on gossip, names are sometimes named as sources of embarrassing statements and delicate situations, and some statements come across as out-of-context sound bites. Scholarship must protect sources and not exacerbate ongoing situations under study. Scholarship must also be honest and neutral, and indeed what this author portrays is accurate. One would wish the history of Indian Catholic relations were like the hagiographies of old, but ultimately Vescey’s Bollandistic demythologizing is a service, for the church must continue to face its sinful past if it is to engage in the healing of the present. Vecsey has provided us, in these three volumes, with much to ponder, much that is encouraging and consoling and much to cause disquietand, one hopes, further conversion and union as we continue along our roads.

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