Santa Fe church works to spread faith and uphold native spirituality - Catholic Courier

Santa Fe church works to spread faith and uphold native spirituality

By Nancy Wiechec
Catholic News Service

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (CNS) — The Archdiocese of Santa Fe has placed new emphasis on reaching out to Pueblo communities, continuing evangelization efforts while upholding a traditional Indian way of life that is unique to New Mexico.

“We are renewing our connection with the pueblos,” Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan told visitors with the Bureau of Catholic Indian Missions during a late October meeting.

“The Catholic Church has a place of prominence in the pueblo communities,” said the archbishop. “But we also need the people of the pueblos to know and feel their connection to the larger church.”

A woman arrives for Mass at St. Augustine Mission in the Pueblo of Isleta in New Mexico. The establishment of the mission dates to 1613. (CNS/Nancy Wiechec)

Sixteen of New Mexico’s 19 pueblos are within the Santa Fe Archdiocese. The other three are in the Diocese of Gallup.

Historically, pueblo missions have been served by Franciscan priests, but the diminishing number of friars has left much of the pastoral responsibility to the archdiocese.

In the past year, Archbishop Sheehan appointed Santa Fe’s first full-time coordinator of Native American ministry, a Catholic deacon from Acoma Pueblo. He also formed the archdiocese’s first Native American advisory council.

The council completed its initial task — creating guidelines for visiting and ministering in the pueblos. The archbishop said it was a first step in acknowledging and reminding people of the special nature of the pueblos.

The newly published guide notes that “Pueblo parishes are not like any other parish community.” It says, “Please be aware and accept that native spirituality and Catholic faith walk hand in hand.”

The guide also says that clergy, religious and laity who are not tribal members need to respect the culture and traditions of the pueblos at all times, even if it means an abrupt cancelation of church activities, including Mass. And that Catholic ministers are welcome in the pueblos to strengthen Catholic faith, not to change native spirituality.

The Pueblo people, distinct to the southwest, are the descendants of the ancient Anasazi, cliff dwellers and other peoples who lived in communal homes made of stone or adobe. They encountered Christianity with the arrival of Spanish Franciscans in 1598.

Pueblo beliefs are intricate. As pueblos tend to protect their religious practices with silence, they are often misunderstood by people on the outside.

Spanish colonizers, and later the U.S. government, tried to suppress the ceremonial practices of the Pueblo people because their ancient dances were considered inconsistent with Christianity.

Today, Pueblo spirituality is seen in a different light.

Archbishop Sheehan, marking the 400th anniversary of the establishment of the church in New Mexico in 1998, wrote, “If the Spaniards came to New Mexico thinking that they were going to introduce the native peoples to the divine, they were mistaken.”

The Indians had “for millennia worshiped the Great Spirit as the sustainer of all life,” he wrote in his pastoral letter “Seeds of Struggle, Harvest of Faith.” He said their hearts “provided a receptive soil for the seeds of the Gospel.”

The coexistence of Indian and Catholic tradition is demonstrated when pueblos mark the feast days of patron saints. A Catholic Mass and procession as well as Indian ceremonial dances are part of the celebrations. The feast-day events are well attended and draw the interest of tourists.

Deacon Sidney Martin, a Pueblo Indian, is coordinator of the Santa Fe Archdiocese’s Native American ministry and the Native American coordinator for youth and young adult ministry. He emphasizes the church’s continuing evangelization and holding regard for Pueblo ways and traditions.

“We are really trying to open the doors of communication and create harmony with the pueblos and the church. We want to continue with the people on their faith journey, encouraging participation in liturgy and faith growth through education.”

The deacon explained that the more traditional pueblos are wary of other religions coming into their communities. “They want to keep their identity, culture and traditions intact and pure within the Pueblo.”

The pueblos are not all alike. Each has its own government, constitution and laws. Some have specific measures dealing with the protection of traditional religion. The constitution of Laguna Pueblo states that members of the pueblo have the freedom to worship in accordance with their respective religious beliefs and practices, as long as the religion does not interfere with the traditional religious practices of the pueblo.

“The Pueblo people today are still learning and understanding the history of the Catholic Church and the introduction of Christian faith,” Deacon Martin said, adding that many Pueblo Catholics appreciate and have a good connection to the archdiocese.

Visiting Acoma Pueblo recently, he stops and greets a mother and daughter who are selling pottery and crafts near San Estevan del Rey Mission. He tells them of his work with the Archdiocese of Santa Fe. The mother introduces herself and her daughter, Sidney Kateri Sanchez.

“She has your name and the name of St. Kateri,” she tells the deacon.

“She’s very blessed,” he responds. They laugh for a bit and chat.

Acoma Pueblo is in the Diocese of Gallup and is the ancestral home of Deacon Martin. In July, Santa Fe’s Native American ministry team made visits to Acoma and Laguna pueblos, both within the Gallup Diocese, to introduce themselves and present a gift from the archbishop, as they did with all the other pueblos.

Sharlyn Sanchez said she was glad the deacon stopped to say hello. “A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of us are Catholic,” she says and talks a little about her parish and the nearby Catholic school that has educated family members for generations.

In an exhibit at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, author and historian Joe S. Sando of the Jemez Pueblo explains his view of Catholicism within the Pueblo community.

He calls it a “complicated and often tumultuous story” resulting in a “unique balance of Pueblo and Catholic traditions preserved and continuously observed to this day.”

He writes that Pueblo anthropologist Alfonso Ortiz described the Pueblos’ acceptance and embrace of the Catholic faith as “the result of a deep rooted Pueblo value to ‘combine and balance opposites.’

“This balance was the basis for Pueblo spirituality long before the arrival of the Spanish, and it is in the same pursuit that Pueblos continue to embrace Catholic beliefs today.”

Sando names the Catholic teachings that especially appeal to Pueblo people — that honor is given to Christ, the “Creator made man,” and that devotion is given to saints, “the friends of Jesus,” for blessings and healing.

Elder and council member Leonard Armijo of the Pueblo of Santa Ana said he fears that both the traditional and Catholic beliefs of the Pueblo Indians may become lost with future generations.

“Traditional ways and faith are passed on from generation to generation,” he said. “We’re beginning to lose that touch because of influences from the outside.”

On the other hand, some Pueblo communities are witnessing a reemergence of Catholic identity.

Margie Creel, a catechist from Jemez Pueblo, said her mission parish had a record 220 adults confirmed in two years. She said young adults who had been baptized and had received their first Communion but had been away from the church were now knocking at the parish door.

In 2013, the mission could not hold all those who wanted to attend the Confirmation ceremony, so they held it in the Santa Fe cathedral basilica.

“I am certain it was the largest Native American gathering in the history of the church in Santa Fe,” Creel said.

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