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Indigenous Priest Shares Practices That Will be Part of Pope Francis’ Canada Trip

Sandy Raybuck “Turtle Woman,” left, who is of Blackfoot and Mohawk ancestry, conducts a smudging ritual before a dancer joins the grand entry during an all-nations powwow at the National Shrine of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha in Fonda, N.Y., in this July 5, 2010, file photo. A Canadian priest helping prepare for Pope Francis’ visit to Canada said gestures such as the smudge ceremony or facing the four directions to pray show sensitivity to Indigenous culture and are not contrary to the Catholic faith. (CNS photos/Nancy Wiechec)

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — When Pope Francis travels to Canada to apologize to Indigenous communities for the way the Catholic Church joined efforts to uproot them from their traditional culture and spirituality, their traditions will be on full display.

[Related: Pope Francis Describes Canada Trip as ‘Penitential Pilgrimage’]

The First Nation, Métis and Inuit people will welcome Pope Francis to their lands July 24-29 wearing their traditional dress, speaking their languages, performing their songs and dances and sharing elements of their traditional styles of prayer.

Mohawk Marvin Phillips holds up a smudging bowl and feather during an American Indian ritual at the Tekakwitha Conference Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington in this June 30, 2007, file photo. A Canadian priest helping prepare for Pope Francis’ visit to Canada said gestures such as the smudge ceremony or facing the four directions to pray show sensitivity to Indigenous culture and are not contrary to the Catholic faith.

Father Cristino Bouvette, a priest of the Diocese of Calgary, Alberta, has been working with the pope’s master of liturgical ceremonies, Msgr. Diego Giovanni Ravelli, to plan the Masses and prayer services for the trip. Father Bouvette is Italian on his mother’s side and Cree and Métis on his father’s side.

“For Indigenous Catholics to see the Holy Father welcomed to some place like Sacred Heart Church by having smudged the space first, or facing the four directions to offer his blessing — as simple as those gestures may seem — clearly demonstrates a sensitivity on his part to their traditions which, though outside of any particular Catholic expression of faith, are certainly not contrary to it,” the priest said in an email response to questions.

One of the events Father Bouvette has helped plan is Pope Francis’ scheduled meeting July 25 with Indigenous people at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, which has been the official parish for First Nations and Métis people in Edmonton since 1993.

Before Pope Francis arrives, an elder will process into the church with a bowl of smoldering cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco — the common aromatics used for the “smudge” ceremony by many native peoples of North America.

“The smudge that is being proposed at Sacred Heart holds a two-fold purpose: 1) To show recognition of the ritual in an observable/public way; and 2) As a ritual of purification in the space itself as a gesture of making the space ‘more hospitable’ to welcome the Holy Father as he arrives,” Father Bouvette wrote in an email.

Usually, the person doing the smudging would use a feather or branch to direct the smoke toward participants who use their hands to welcome it as a sign of their desire to cleanse their minds and hearts. However, Father Bouvette said, at Sacred Heart the elder will smudge the church itself but will not direct the smoke toward the pope.

Twenty years ago, St. John Paul II celebrated a Mass and beatification of two Indigenous men in Mexico City. At the beginning of the Mass in 2002, Catholic News Service reported, there was “a purification ritual carried out by a woman in traditional costume who gently waved medicinal herbs in front of the pope” while other women in native dress carried smoking pots of aromatics. The liturgy featured dancing as well.

St. John Paul, in his homily, told the people, “The two blesseds are an example of how, without regarding one’s ancestral customs as myths, one can reach God without renouncing one’s own culture but letting oneself be enlightened by the light of Christ, which renews the religious spirit of the best popular traditions.”

In the church’s ongoing process of inculturation — making room for a group’s cultural expressions — Father Bouvette said there is “a very important distinction between something being ‘pagan,’ which means nothing more than practiced by the non-baptized, and something being blasphemous or sacrilegious.”

“Certain ‘pagan’ practices would be ‘sacrilegious’ because they either make a mockery of our faith or dangerously open one up to the spiritual order where one has no control over what enters or attaches,” he said. “There are a variety of Indigenous rituals such as this which I have intentionally left off the table from the beginning.”

“In a Catholic context, we could see the ritual of smudging as being akin to the use of certain of our sacramentals which are borne for personal, spiritual purposes, such as wearing the scapular or anointing with the oil of St. Joseph’s Oratory,” in Montreal, a practice initiated by St. André Bessette, Father Bouvette said. The cedar, sage, sweetgrass and tobacco are “gifts of the Creator and therefore returned back to the Creator.”

“Personal purification or the purification of the space where the smudge is happening are the exclusive purposes of the ritual,” he said.

Another Indigenous practice people may see during the papal visit, Father Bouvette said, is praying while facing the north, the south, the east and the west.

“We do not pray ‘to’ the four directions — we pray only to God, the creator,” he said. But the movement is “similar to the ancient Christian appreciation of directional orientation — like facing East at the altar as we await the second coming of Christ or facing north to proclaim the Gospel in the direction of darkness where the light of the sun does not pass.”

“The significance for Indigenous people in orienting themselves in prayer to each of the cardinal directions is twofold,” he said. “First, it serves as a reminder of the omnipresence of the Creator and that all creation belongs to him.”

And second, Father Bouvette said, “each direction is also aligned with the stages of human life: infants and children to the east; adolescents and young adults to the south; parents and middle-aged to the west; and our elders to the north. In addition to recognizing the dignity of all human life, it also demonstrates a humble submission to the passage of time, following the direction of the sun in the sky, to which we all must submit ourselves if we seek to live in harmony and peace.”