Despite an abundance of Indigenous languages spoken in Canada, there has yet to be an official translation of the liturgy into any of these languages. Photo by Michael Swan

Still a way to go for Indigenous liturgy

  • April 14, 2022

More than 70 aboriginal languages are spoken in Canada, according to the 2016 census. But you can’t fully celebrate the Eucharist in any of them. Anointing the sick, baptisms, funerals, weddings and other important sacramental markers of Catholic life are also delivered on Indigenous land in English or French.

There are no official Indigenous translations, no heavy and gorgeously bound sacramentaries and no liturgical commissions overseeing the Mass in Inuktitut or Cree or Squamish. In mission churches across the country you will find xeroxed hymn sheets in the local language. In many places elders have important roles leading smudging ceremonies at the start of Mass. Drummers may initiate the procession and accompany the kyrie. Indigenous art is displayed in many church sanctuaries. In a few, rare cases, Indigenous language speakers have translated prayers and parts of the Mass for use in their local parish.

But nowhere in Canada is the source and summit of our faith fully integrated into an Indigenous language and culture. This process of inculturation, which began not long after the Second Vatican Council, has through the decades since remained a local, ad hoc, improvised, pastoral initiative — and still a long way from completion.

“Right now the availability of Cree liturgy is pretty sketchy,” reports Deacon Harry Lafond.

Cree is one of the larger, more robust Indigenous languages in Canada. Cree, Inuktitut and Anishinaabemowin are the languages of nearly two-thirds of about 229,000 Canadians who claim an Indigenous language as their mother tongue and regularly speak that language at home.

“Everything is pretty ad hoc, with few clergy having or taking the time to learn the language,” Lafond, Indigenous education scholar at St. Thomas More College in the University of Saskatchewan and former chief of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, said in an email.

However, with Pope Francis’ proclamation of a new Vatican constitution, Praedicate Evangelium, on March 19, opportunities for a more officially recognized and thorough adaptation of Roman liturgy into Indigenous culture are opening  up.

“The dicastery is no longer working specifically, solely for the Pope,” explained Msgr. Michael Kahle, senior official with the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. “The dicastery is also working for the episcopal conferences of the world.”

What that means is that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is free to call up Kahle and his colleagues and ask for help producing an official and thorough inculturation of the liturgy. Kahle will get right on it.

“We’re at the service of what they want to do,” Kahle said. “If they came here we would help them because we have expertise in the congregation to do that. We would share with them the experience that we have dealing with the entire world on matters of inculturation.”

That sounds like good news to Lafond.

“I personally would welcome an opportunity to put together a team to do the work of providing development of liturgical ceremonies in Cree, with the accompanying work to train local people and clergy in the proper protocols as taught by Cree knowledge keepers,” said Lafond.

Working toward something like an Indigenous rite (or more precisely an Indigenous Canadian usage of the Roman rite) would be an important sign of reconciliation with cultures that were nearly erased by the residential school system, said Fr. David Shulist, director of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre near Espanola, Ont.

“It would be honouring them and their language, and also helping to promote the language and therefore affirming the culture within the community,” the Jesuit told The Catholic Register in an email.

But the process doesn’t begin with the bishops’ conference, or even with priests working in Indigenous communities, Schulist pointed out.

“Non-Indigenous leaders, in this case the priests, do not have the authority to do this — take what is Indigenous and be incorporating it into the liturgies and sacramental rituals. This would be presumptuous on our part,” he said.

St. Joseph’s College liturgy professor Fr. Warren Schmidt puts the work of inculturation in terms of the oldest motto in Catholic liturgy.

“It comes back down to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi,” he said.

The Latin phrase is loosely translated “as we pray, so we believe.” In a sense, prayer and ritual come before theology and it is in prayer a community knows its own identity before God.

“You start with the way of praying, the devotional aspect, cultural aspects that get their way into the liturgy,” Schmidt said. “It starts at the local level.”

But at the local level, it’s a struggle, according to Lafond.

“The desire is there for more work to be done among the Cree Catholics of our diocese, but the resources are marginal for both developmental work and training of personnel to implement the transition and changes required,” he said.

As a deacon who is fluent in Cree, Lafond works hard at preserving and promoting Cree culture in Catholic ritual and devotion.

“My own practice with vigil and funeral services is to translate sections of the services into Cree, especially when I know the family are speakers and the deceased was a speaker,” he said. “This is pretty piecemeal, but that’s the best I can do under the circumstances.”

But it’s not all bad news. Important work on Indigenous liturgy has been done.

“Probably the best piece of work in the past 10 years is the translation of the New Testament with Cree on one side and the accompanying English on the facing page,” said Lafond. “This is a brave start in our diocese.”

As languages and cultures have been overwhelmed over the past two or three generations by mass media, the Internet and pressures of the dominant economy, preserving Indigenous languages in the liturgy has become more and more a challenge, said Shulist.

“Given that the Anishnaabek languages are not as well known among the people themselves and as widespread, this would be a great challenge,” he said.

The efforts of the 1980s and ’90s depended on Indigenous Catholic leaders in the form of deacons and members of the Diocesan Order of Service in the Sault Ste. Marie diocese.

“Many of them have moved on to the ‘spirit world,’ with fewer coming forward to carry out the important work of inculturation and indigenizing the Church,” said Shulist.

There are riches for Catholic spirituality in the Indigenous world view. The four cardinal directions and awareness of life lived between earth and sky situates us in God’s creation “with Christ being at the centre,” Shulist said.

“It’s very important that changes are made with good theology. They can’t be made for just social reasons. Social reasons change,” said Kahle. “Why does there have to be theology? Because of the incarnation. When God became man He changed everything. So there is a permeation of the divine in everything that we do.”

For Shulist, inculturation is all about the incarnation.

“This inculturation process is constituting us as Chrsitians and providing us with a meaningful expression, and a truer and inclusive way to be Christian in our time. So, an official mandate to work at this from an organic approach, with an understanding of always moving towards an acceptable and meaningful ritual, is very much needed,” he said.

Since the Second Vatican Council, the Church has been getting ready to learn from Indigenous cultures around the world.

“One of the big changes that we’re engaged in now is the synodal process,” said Kahle. “That’s how things come to the surface for the bishops to actually identify, consider, reflect upon and make decisions. The synodal process is quite important.”

Catholics sometimes forget that the Mass is the ordinary sacrament of reconciliation. Not ordinary in the sense of hum-drum, but ordinary in the sense that it orders our lives. The Mass is how every baptized Christian takes part in Jesus Christ’s reconciling act on the cross and in the Resurrection. In the Eucharist we are reconciled with God and all of creation.

The reconciliation Pope Francis, the Church in Canada and Indigenous Canadians have longed for is not incidental — not an extra feature for the Church.

“What is at the centre of the Gospel?” asked Kahle. “It’s forgiveness. And forgiveness demands reconciliation. That needs to be worked at because people are hurt. People feel that they may be disadvantaged. So you’ve got to get over the hurt. You’ve got to create a new path that makes it possible for people to feel both accepted and part of a new enterprise. That is at the heart of the Gospel.”

“Inculturating elements of their cultures into Roman Catholic liturgy could be a means or a path toward atonement,” said Schmidt.

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