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Church, Justice And The Works Of Mercy

David Ridley

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The Oblates in the Contemporary Church and Society

Given current and often simplistic perceptions of the role and history of religious bodies in establishing civil institutions in native communities, some might regard social analysis and structural critique carried out by those in religious orders as suspect and more a function of public relations than service rooted in profound relationship.2 In speaking with Oblates and reading through the relevant documents, it is evidently the latter although I hardly think this would persuade those arguing from the contrary.  Culturally, we are in a period of purgation as Canadians collectively attempt to face the injury done to First Nations people, reflected in negotiated settlements for land, political territory and compensation.  However, this comes in fits and starts and we are still not in much of a mood to acknowledge this historical wound and the profound disorder it creates in a society.  As I listen to the news accounts of injury and litigation, it strikes me this injury is being displaced by the larger society to religious bodies and the institutional church.  Some of this is for valid reasons, but much of it bears the scent of escapism and scapegoating.

In a recent paper on Oblate missions in the Canadian northwest, Wayne Holst describes the historical stages as "triumphalist missionary operation," followed by a period of "chastened mutual accompaniment" as Aboriginal people seek a new relationship with civil society and a revitalized self-understanding, to an emerging "mutual ministry of healing and reconciliation in Church and society."3 While there is sufficient truth in these characterizations, it is an analysis which misses the significance of missionary relationships with the people of a community in daily life, in tending to the marginalized and outcast and in carrying the civil vision and institutions which for better or worse have been the basis on which First Nations have made their analysis and moved toward self-determination.  But aside from this, it is important to look at the place of the Missionary Oblates within the Church and how the reshaping of the relationship between church and society is manifest in the Oblates reflections and directions on their work.

This call for new approaches to ministry is not the first time there has been a review and reconsideration of the Oblate missions to First Nations people.  In 1935, Oblate Superior General Theodore Laboure examined the progress of the order's work in Native and Métis missions.4 Many of the recommendations that came from the superior general's review "were rooted in the Oblate's past but others anticipated the ecumenical spirit generated by Vatican II."5 The changes in the Church articulated during the era of the Second Council are important in understanding the Oblate reflection and response to the call for solidarity with the disfavoured and disadvantaged, based in community and political organization and not solely in the older Catholic teaching for social reform through the ethical conversion of individuals in the spirit of generosity, goodwill and cooperation.

In his 1987 Massey Lectures entitled Compassion and Solidarity:  The Church for Others the Canadian Catholic theologian Gregory Baum emphasizes two contemporary developments shaping this call for a new social imagination. The convening of the Second Vatican Council from 1962 to 1965  asked the church to consider what response it would make to the challenges of the modern world.  Pope John XXIII encouraged the Church towards greater critical reflection on its practices and failures.  His Holiness asked the Church to listen to those movements within the Church that asked for reforms and to study renewal efforts in other Christian denominations.6 This instruction moved the Church towards cooperation and a solidarity with not only other Christian churches, but with other faith traditions and the "whole people of God," the whole human family,  contrasting with the preconciliar practice of praying only for those in the Christian community and in the Church.  This is embodied in the conciliar document The Church in the Modern World, which "expressed in an unprecedented way the Church's solidarity with the entire human family":

The joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of men and women of this age, especially of those who are poor or in any way afflicted, these too are the joys and hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the followers of Christ.7

Baum writes of this as "the church for others," an agency of friendship and service, struggling with others and strengthening the bond between others.  The Church understands God's grace extending to the whole of humanity and posits a renewed emphasis on God's immanence, as a corrective to a wholly other and distant divinity.  At the same time, it is a recognition of the emerging reality of pluralism and secular life: there is no longer a general correspondence between people living in a community or a society and a single tradition which brings them together in prayer, ritual and sacred story.  As this existential identification with humankind is made explicit, these shifts lead to a more modest understanding of the Church in society, a recognition that "Church" and "state" or "society" are not identical or fused in their concerns or spheres of authority.  The Church no longer instructs the faithful to support particular political agendas and politicians.  This relinquishment of political power comes as the Church recognizes its own marginality in a secularized society. Its influence is that of a leavening agent and not the substance of the body politic itself, aligned with established power in a society.

The second influence is that of the Latin American church ushering liberation theology and "a preferential option for the poor" into the Church's teaching.  The years leading up to and after the Second Council were tumultuous ones in so-called "Third World" states; central American countries were among these.  During the 1950s, wealthy countries had committed themselves to large infusions of capital to help poorer nations escape the mantle of poverty.  The infusion of capital created new industries but provided few jobs, goods or food for local people.  Further, the political influence wielded by managers overseeing these programs tended to defend the status quo.  Charity as "development assistance" had a bleak side and led to a vigourous analysis of the economic practices imposed by intended development on those experiencing its results.  This analysis arose out of "base" communities committed to biblical reflection and social action using the critical tools of social science.  The story of the Exodus and a belief in a divine prerogative for the oppressed and downtrodden was key:   without working for a fuller justice in society there could be no valid worship of God.  These communities of reflection saw this prophetic witness continued in Jesus' preaching the Kingdom of God, pointing to a radical transformation in which the poor would inherit their due.  The coming reign of Jesus, one who was also persecuted, tortured and executed by the authorities of the day, would permeate all dimensions of human life, spiritual and material.  This theological understanding was further systematized in the writings of those priests and theologians who served and joined these communities.  Consequently, new understandings and approaches to ethical conversion arise out of the failure and the complication of the large scale call for charitable action.

These understandings were assimilated by Canadian churches with relative ease in the late 1960s.  For Protestant denominations, the movement marked the return of the Social Gospel which had influenced political thought and practice during the years leading to and during the Great Depression.  Besides interchurch statements and action on matters of social justice, the Canadian Council of Bishops made several pastoral statements which clarified the nature of social justice issues in Canadian society.8 These statements noted the failure of the practices of economic institutions, the trend towards centralization of capital, and the growing gap between the rich and poor, in Canada and internationally. These statements stand with Church teaching on the struggle for justice as "integral to bringing the Gospel to the world."9 The Canadian bishops supported the preferential option for the poor called for by the Latin American bishops and included in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis.

Through these events within the Roman Catholic Church and the specific experience of the Latin American Church, a sea change occurs which affects the Missionary Oblates as a religious order and those Oblates in formation during this time.  These large institutional and intellectual developments are the backdrop for the stories and experiences of Oblates redefining their mission and ministry.

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