Ken Perrault of Minnesota, an Ojibwe, conducts a purification ritual called "smudging" at the start of a Mass during the Tekakwitha Conference in Fargo, N.D., in this July 25, 2014, file photo. CNS photo/Nancy Wiechec

Editorial: Liturgies of reconciliation

  • September 2, 2022

Following Pope Francis’ peripatetic apology this summer, and as the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation looms at September’s end, it’s safe to foresee increases in Indigenous “adaptations” of Catholic liturgy.

It’s equally easy to imagine, for example, (fictional) Mr. Sean O’Flaherty of St. Patrick’s parish, or, say, (imagined) Ms. Philomena McFee of Our Lady of Knock, curling a lip and shooting dark Irish eyes at poor old Fr. Doyle for permitting a smudging ceremony in advance of the Eucharist, or a land acknowledgement before Mass.  Nor will it require superhero hearing powers to catch the tongue clucks over the indignant rattle of coffee spoons downstairs after the dismissal.

For them, and all who genuflect at the altar of perpetual liturgical affront, we would amend the immortal words of Milton: “Look homeward, angels, and melt with truth.” For the truth is that the history of the Church is a zigzag stitching of alterations and customizations to help the liturgy focus hearts, minds and souls on Christ.

Nowhere is this more famously evident than in the Irish Church where conversion of the pagan “Scotti” was gained by brilliant synthesizing of their myths, symbols and, above all, practices with Christian truth. There is, of course, no evidence St. Patrick used the shamrock to explain the Trinity to baffled Gaels. But the story captures how local imagery can fire the imagination and ignite spiritual practice.

Practice, of course, is at least a two-way street. As D. L. T. Bethell wrote in a 1981 essay “The Originality of the Early Irish Church,” for the Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, our contemporary habit of genuflecting is thanks to the Irish Church of the seventh century  when “St. Cuthbert, trained by the Irish, got callouses on his knees from the multitude of his genuflections (even though) the practice of genuflection was unknown in Rome or the eastern rites” at the time. Habits change inward – and outward – with time.

It is time, we surely recognize, to change ourselves by discarding and making amends for long-discredited accretions of 19th century progressive dogma (“hey, we’re making a better world for them, too!”) and imperious actions that steamroll others (“they’ll just have to learn to be like us, won’t they?”). Doing so necessarily means accepting the perfect acceptability of Christ-centred acts that bear sacred meaning for our Indigenous co-religionists. It means ceasing to be Doubting Thomases who challenge, whether from animus or hide-boundness, the sincerity of “their” faith and the humble authenticity of “their” veneration.

There is an argument that Mass is not the time to pay lip service to land acknowledgements. The focus, however, should be on the “lip” and the “service.” There is never time, before, after or certainly during Mass, for a faith of the lips alone. Sincere confession of our sins in betraying those who came before us is, however, the alpha and omega of our faith.

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