August 26, 2019 — The first indigenous mass organized by the Church of the Gesù took place last August 11, to the sounds of the indigenous teweikan drums, under the scent of sacred sage and in a prayerful atmosphere.
This liturgical celebration was organized on the fringes of the First Peoples Festival which took place nearby at Place des Festivals. It was presided by Father John Meehan, SJ, with Father Erik Oland, SJ, the Jesuit Provincial of Canada, concelebrating.
Wearing a cassock and surplice for the occasion, the Ojibwe Roger Twance played a leading role in the liturgy. Tom Dearhouse, elder of the Kanien’kehá :ka Nation of Kahnawake, and Kenneth Wallace of the Choctaw Nation also took part, both dressed in the traditional garb of their respective groups. Father John Meehan wore an indigenous-inspired chasuble.
Catholic Mass, Indigenous Rituals
The mass integrated a great number of indigenous spiritual traditions. The entrance procession, including the usual processional cross (adorned with sacred eagle feathers for the occasion), was accompanied by the rhythm of the drums and native songs of Tom Dearhouse and Kenneth Wallace. The penitential act, which made use of the traditional sage smudge, followed. In the spiritual practices of the First Nations, sage smoke is associated with rituals of purification.
The prayers of the faithful were accompanied by the intoxicating sound of teweikan and the fragrance of sage smoke.
Different emotions and a great devotion were palpable throughout the congregation, judging by the large number of faithful who came forward to the altar to address their prayers to the Creator while making an offering of sage leaves on the burning embers. All the while Tom Dearhouse and Kenneth Wallace sounded their drums and sang without pause to accompany the congregation in their prayers.
The biblical texts were read by Tom Dearhouse (Wisdom 18: 6-9) and Roger Twance (Hebrews 11: 1-2), as well as by the Provincial Erik Oland (Luke 12: 32-48). In his homily, John Meehan did not fail to acknowledge the role of the ancestors, who ensure the durability and vitality of the faith and ancestral traditions; In his homily, John Meehan made a point of saluting the role of the ancestors, who ensure the continuity and vitality of the faith of the ancestral traditions. On several occasions, he challenged the Catholic Church and the members of our faith communities for all the times when they have lacked charity, solidarity and fraternity towards our indigenous brothers and sisters.
He pleaded in favour of reconciliation, acknowledging Sister Marie-Laure Simon, c.n.d., present at the event, whom he warmly thanked for her contribution to the promotion of indigenous cultures and spiritualities, as well as to the reconciliation among peoples, especially within the Wampum Centre, which she led for 25 years.
Cultivating Solidarity and Engagement
At the end of this liturgical celebration, attended by 140 people, the congregation was invited to take part in the Blanket Exercise, developed by KAIROS and adapted to the Quebec context by ROJEP to raise awareness among Canadians about the vexations, humiliations and injustices that have marked the historical journey of Indigenous peoples in North America. Led by Brian McDonough, former director of the Social Action Office of the Archdiocese of Montreal, the exercise was well attended, with no less than forty people remaining after the mass. The emotion was palpable throughout the exercise, and even more so during the discussion period that followed.
This experience of the ugliness and violence of colonialism shocked many participants, including those who lived – and are still living – with the consequences of this colonial past, whether they were Indigenous or immigrant. This exercise, which encourages empathy, evoked strong emotions among participants of Mi’kmaq, Acadian, Caribbean and even Algerian descent, who all had in common that they came from peoples who had been exposed to the horrors of colonialism.
Other participants spoke of their own awareness of the injustices that have been suffered not only by Canada’s Indigenous peoples but also by all colonized populations. This led to several calls for reconciliation, solidarity and transformation of the colonialist structures still at work in Quebec and Canada.
Overall, this was a great success for a first celebration of this kind at the Gesù. However, it may be desirable that over the years, events such as this one give even greater prominence to the cultural and spiritual traditions of First Nations, as well as to Aboriginal people who do not adhere to the Catholic faith, in order to further the process of inculturation, as well as dialogue, reconciliation and the decolonization of our relationships with Aboriginal peoples.