During this past summer Pope Francis made a much publicized journey to Canada, chiefly Western Canada, where he lamented and atoned for what he termed the “cultural genocide” visited on the native people of that vast area by some religious men and women and other representatives of the Catholic Church.
Nineteenth and early twentieth century missionaries — priests, brothers, sisters and lay persons — assumed, probably with a well-intentioned zeal, that the best service they could provide the young people of Western Canada would be to separate them from their primitive native culture and immerse them in the culture of greater Canada, in fact, the culture of the Western world. The native North American civilization was thought to be primitive, crude, even superstitious, possibly diabolical. Rescuing the youth of Canada from the assumed harmful effects of this aboriginal existence seemed a worthy goal, a genuine service, a true ministry.
The extreme short-sightedness of the era encouraged the English-speaking and French-speaking populations of Catholic Canada to despise the native customs, the family traditions, the natural insights, and the ethnic wisdom that the denizens of Western Canada had bred and fostered over the centuries. Such primitive culture was best forgotten and the exalted arts and sciences of Eastern Canada and Western Europe readily embraced.
In sad retrospect, the insights and practices of these First Nations, as Canadians choose to call them, now seem quite worthy and beneficial, especially as the larger world of Western civilization begins to reflect on the harm done to the planet’s hemispheres and climates by the excesses of modern culture. Quite lamentably then, several generations of native children have no experience of the insights and appreciation that their people had cultivated over the years. Ancient wisdom had vanished, overwhelmed by modern conventions and recent technology. Such unhappy obliteration was the “cultural genocide” His Holiness lamented.
Pope Francis was not the first pontiff to mourn the heavy-handed treatment that some native cultures received at the hands of missioners. “The Church grows by the energy of Christ’s love and not by the power of ideologies,” Pope Benedict XVI said during the 5th General Conference of Latin American Bishops at the Marian shrine of Aparecida, Brazil, in 2007. The Pope explained that the Church “does not engage in proselytism. Instead, she grows by ‘attraction’,” “just as Christ draws all to himself by the power of his love.” The Catholic faith is “not a political ideology, not a social movement, not an economic system.” Rather, Catholicism is “faith in the God who is Love.”
More recently, in 2019, Pope Francis spoke a little more pointedly about his understanding of the proper way to spread the faith. Addressing religious leaders in Rabat, Morocco, His Holiness observed, “Our mission as baptized persons, priests and consecrated men and women, is not really determined by the number or size of spaces that we occupy, but rather by our capacity to generate change and to awaken wonder and compassion.
“We do this by the way we live as disciples of Jesus, in the midst of those with whom we share our daily lives, joys and sorrows, suffering and hopes. In other words, the paths of mission are not those of proselytism. Please, these paths are not those of proselytism!” In an article for the Catholic News Agency, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, New Jersey, explained this proselytism that the two recent Popes have rejected: “This meaning includes using any type of pressure to convert someone, whether it is moral, political or economic. It means caricaturing with unfair criticism the beliefs of others.”
Pope Francis provoked great wonderment when he allowed an Amazonian artifact to be brought into the Vatican gardens. Some observers considered the gesture “an act of idolatrous worship of the pagan goddess Pachamama.” No doubt the Pontiff intended that any respect shown toward the statue might be interpreted as respect for the broader culture of the Amazon peoples whose natural insights might do today’s techno-centric Western world some good. The cultural genocide lamented in Canada was going to be reversed in the Amazon. Appreciation, not denunciation was the Pontiff’s objective.
In this coming Sunday’s Gospel passage, Jesus Christ wins over the heart of Zacchaeus by a simple neighborly gesture: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” Popes Benedict and Francis both see fraternal kindness and not paternal harshness as integral to authentic evangelization.