Bob McKeon


August 29, 2016

A couple of weeks ago, I participated in an important conference in Winnipeg. The annual Directions in Indigenous Ministry conference is co-sponsored by the standing committee on indigenous affairs of the Assembly of Western Catholic Bishops and Newman Theological College.

The title of the conference was Decolonizing Pastoral Ministry. This title is significant because it implies that a decolonization approach itself needs to be taken in pastoral ministry and in the life of the Church itself.

About 60 of us participated, about half indigenous and half non-indigenous. People came from very different church roles, including bishops, pastors, deacons, women and men religious, elders, diocesan staff, parish lay leaders, teachers, academics, and committed individuals.

There was a strong international flavour with participants from Mexico, Peru, Africa and Asia, together with those from Ontario, Quebec and the four western provinces.

The context of the conference was significant. In the past year, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report. This report included specific calls to action directed to the churches, such as the Catholic Church, which were directly involved with operating the Indian residential schools.

Four months previously, two historic Canadian Catholic leadership statements were issued as a response to the TRC Calls to Action. They were signed by the leadership of the Canadian bishops, the Canadian Religious Conference, the Catholic Aboriginal Council, and Development and Peace.

These national Catholic leaders appealed to all Catholics in Canada to "continue to walk together with indigenous peoples in building a more just society where their gifts and those of all people are nurtured and honoured."

These Catholic leaders made eight specific public commitments concerning dialogue, education, and action about moving forward towards reconciliation and right relations, in the legacy of the Indian residential schools and the TRC.

Those commitments are to be lived out in Catholic dioceses, parishes, schools, religious communities, seminaries, pastoral centres, health care and criminal justice ministries.

The commitments speak of promoting "a culture of encounter," of "broadening and deepening (their) relationships, dialogue and collaboration with indigenous peoples," and supporting "indigenous reflection within the Catholic community."

This means valuing, supporting and listening to indigenous voices. This was modelled at this year's Directions in Indigenous Ministry conference. Most of the speakers were indigenous.


We learned about indigenous spiritualty and experienced indigenous prayers and ritual. We were introduced to the importance of articulating a Catholic indigenous contextual theology, which emerges from spiritual life and culture of indigenous communities.

At the conference, we were blessed to have presenters from Mayan communities in Chiapas, Mexico and Quechua people in the Andes of Peru where the process of inter-culturation of the Christian Gospel in ordained and non-ordained ministries, catechesis, liturgy and theology is more developed and advanced than in Canada.

The presence of international speakers was a clear reminder that the movement towards reconciliation and right relationships in Canada is part of a dynamic global movement of indigenous peoples which has led to the proclamation of the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada has signed, and which the Vatican and the Canadian bishops have supported.

The TRC report sees this declaration as providing the basic framework for Canada to move from being a colonial nation to a decolonized nation, where we can live as treaty peoples with equal dignity for all.


At the end of conference, we were challenged to bring these insights home to our local Catholic communities. What might this look like?

St. Kateri Parish, an urban indigenous Catholic community in Winnipeg, spoke of its pastoral plan which focuses on healing and reconciliation, and includes specific references to the TRC Calls to Action, and the UN declaration. Teachers working in Catholic schools in Alberta spoke of expanding programs on indigenous spiritualty, culture and history in their school districts.

A leader from an Oblate retreat house in Alberta spoke of continuing and expanding its work with indigenous peoples and issues. An Alberta diocese is presently hiring a coordinator for Catholic-Aboriginal relations.

The message from our Canadian Catholic leaders and the experience of this conference is that we are in a "kairos" time, a grace-filled opportunity for generational historic change, that all of us need to engage in our Catholic communities and organizations, and in the wider society.

(Bob McKeon: