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Church, Justice And The Works Of Mercy

David Ridley

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Mission and Maintenance

Although I have attempted to show the constellation of personal experience and large movements leading to this work through the experiences of Frs. Piche and Fumoleau and in the Church in the North, this shift obviously involves large and difficult questions of ecclesiastical authority and Church teaching as well as managing the tension between the mission and maintenance of the institutions involved.  For example, Project North [see footnote 17] was perceived by Bishop Paul Piche as "an interference in the internal administration of his territory" because it frequently released major decisions without the approval of the northern bishops who had oversight of priests and Roman Catholic church workers involved in the Project.26 Some of these statements clashed directly with administrative policy.27 Further the debate around the relationship of liberation theology with Marxist thought had not been worked out in the larger Church, yet the use of the language and analysis had moved rapidly into popular movements and theology.  Bishop Piche commented that

There might be something good in those modern movements too, but some people tend to go too far with new ideas.  I must say that I am getting too old to judge these changes because, as we grow older the traditional way of thinking, worshipping and dealing with issues becomes more meaningful to us.28

In an article by Ron Graham on the cancellation of Pope John Paul II's visit to Fort Simpson, published in Saturday Night in January 1986, Bishop Piche used a cautionary tone and revealed the dilemmas and perplexities brought about by solidarity work with native peoples:

At first we admired those few priests who were working closely with the Indians, but soon they had all the other fathers against them.  They thought the old Indian religion was as worthy as the Christian religion, so the missionary feels, 'Why am I coming here and disturbing them?'  But we were sent by Christ...29

The Bishop noted that the Dene people encountered by the first Oblate bishop in 1902 were suffering from an epidemic of tuberculosis and that the Oblate efforts to build hospital and school were measures intended to "rebuild their health".

In all organizations, the Church and religious orders included, conflict often arises in sorting out the logic of maintenance and the logic of mission.  In this case, the activity of those "few priests working closely with the Indians..." was, in effect, making a bold proposal to the Church and the order towards more effective ministry and evangelization.  Such new projects affect a concern for maintenance-- how to explain the difficulties created by the new work, the change in roles and relationships between missionary and people and a concern that the repercussions of abrasive change to status quo, no matter the necessity, imperils future work if existing relationships are not maintained and nurtured.30
[sidebar 1/ photo of Fr. Lavern- horizontal orientation]

The Bishop's remarks, if regarded as paternalistic, reflect an understanding of the complexities of moving towards self-government in relationship to a modern state. The structures of governance in a new society take time to mature and Bishop Piche's comments posit that it is no better to abandon people along this path than it is to exercise an authority which creates obstacles to self-determination and power over choice.  Those actions were an important agent in helping to establish the cultural institutions which currently serve Aboriginal peoples in their movement to self-determination.  The Oblate's role as "fathers, guides and protectors" of their native parishioners,  often assumed in circumstances of broken promises and dire need, could be regarded as paternalistic, but are equally matters of situational expediency as tragic situations played out in isolated camps and communities.31


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