"A lay Catholic perspective"

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Catholics and Traditional Religion

by Rod Lorenz


J UST WHERE do Catholics stand when it comes to Traditional religions and cultures? Does a Native Catholic have to abandon his culture? Is it okay to 'mix' religions? Here are a few basic teachings for Catholics confused about culture.


Jesus Christ is God and the centre of all things. He is more than simply a great prophet or a wise teacher, he is also the source through which all creation has its being. In Jesus, God has pitched his tent among us (cf. John 1:14).

Jesus came among us to teach, heal, and save the whole human race. He gave himself up for us completely. He offered his hunger and thirst, suffering and death, so that all people might live. By this he has won the whole creation for himself, and so everything belongs to him.

Revealed Religion

Catholics believe that from the heart of the Creator comes Christ. He is the greatest gift of God to the human race. In Christ, God has revealed his tender love for us and the promise of a glorious future for all who follow him. Many of these truths we could not know in any other way. Jesus declared, "I will reveal things hidden since the foundation of the world" (Matthew 13:35).

Only in knowing Christ can the longings of the human heart be filled and satisfied. Jesus told his apostles:

"Many prophets and holy men have longed to see what you see, and never saw it; to hear what you hear, and never heard it" (Matthew 13:17).

The Church

Jesus established the Church as a way of reaching out to every nation. In it are gathered people from every nation, tribe, and race whom Christ draws to himself. He has commanded his Church to teach all nations. Saint Paul says:

If you read my words you will have some idea of the depths that I see in the mystery of Christ. This mystery that has now been revealed, was unknown to any past generation.... Through all the ages this has been kept hidden in God, the creator of everything. Why? So that the Spirit beings and Powers should learn only now, through the Church, how great God's wisdom really is, exactly according to the plan which he had from all eternity in Christ Jesus our Lord (Ephesians 3:4-11).

Traditional Religions

Catholics believe that the Father and Creator of all has planted a sort of instinct in every culture to prepare it for the fulfilment of his great plan. Just as a bird prepares a nest for its young, so the Creator prepared the First Nations for the knowledge of the Gospel.

Many tribes already believed in the one God as the Great Spirit, and the Creator of all things. Prayer and fasting, and a sense of the sacred were part of their life. There was an awareness of the invisible spiritual world, and a belief in a future life. Among them were men and women of prayer who were highly gifted by God.

Many Native Catholic elders believe there is a connection between the old ceremonies of their own culture and Christianity. In rituals such as the sacred Pipe, and the Sun Dance, can be seen the promise and foreshadowing of Christ.

Black Elk, an Oglala medicine man who became a teacher of the Catholic faith, put it like this:

"That pipe, it teaches how to live a good life, like the Ten Commandments. That worship was my formation, my foundation. But my foundation is deepening. God made me to know him, love him, and serve him. To make sure I do this, God sent us his Son. The old way is good. God prepared us before the missionary came. Our ancestors used the pipe to know God. That's a foundation! But from the old country came Christ from heaven — a wonderful thing — the Son of God. And the Indian cares about this."

There were also ancient prophecies among certain tribes that God was about to reveal something new. Men of prayer like Circling Raven, Shining Shirt, and others foretold the coming of a great new spiritual way, long before missionaries came on the scene.

The Gospel And Culture

Culture is intertwined with religion and is often identified with it, but they are not the same. Culture includes many things. It means our language, the way we live, our stories, dances, arts, songs, and how we understand ourselves.

The Gospel does not destroy our cultures, but enriches and purifies them. What is good, already points to Christ. In the culture of Jesus's own people, the great memorial feast of the Passover found its true fulfilment in him, and became the foundation of the Mass, which is the heart of Catholic worship.

On the other hand, every culture is also distorted by fear, superstition, and other evils. The Jews were a people especially chosen by God, yet their culture was far from perfect. Again and again Jesus corrected them, saying:

"You have heard that it was said by our ancestors, 'Love your friends and hate your enemies'. But I say this to you. Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so you may be children of your Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 5:43).

Cultures are challenged and transformed by the Gospel. Sometimes it is not easy to tell if a custom conforms to the Gospel or not. It may take time, prayer and discernment. Still Catholics believe that it is only through the values and customs of their culture that a people can truly express their Faith.

The Missionaries

The first Christians were Jewish people. Some of them wanted to impose their Jewish customs on converts from other nations. It is common for people to think that their own culture is best. The first leaders of the Church met in council and declared that Jewish practices were not to be imposed on anyone else.

Some of the first missionaries to the First Nations recognised much that was good in their cultures and built on it; others did not. Some even tried to impose their own cultures on the people. This caused resentment and bitterness and did much harm. It was a mistake.

In Christianity, we are not called to conform to a particular culture, we are called to be conformed to Christ, and joined to his Body which is the Church. In being faithful to him, we must be humble and respectful in approaching others. Catholics are to honour goodness and truth wherever they are found.

One Way Or Many

Accepting Christ is a total commitment. Christians take seriously the words of Jesus: "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one can come to the Father except through me" (John 14:6). Jesus is the only Way to the Father. The loyalty of Catholics to Christ and his Church must be undivided. Here, his great gifts of new life, healing, and strength are made available in the Sacraments. If we turn away from him, we turn away from God.

Catholics believe that those, who through no fault of their own, do not know Christ, can be saved by following what light God gives them. We do not believe like some people that anyone who does not accept Jesus in a certain way is doomed to hell. Anyone who sincerely follows what is good and true is following Christ (even without knowing his name) and will be saved.

Things Old And New

Those who believe the Gospel and follow Christ need not abandon anything that is noble, good and true in their traditions. The good things in the old ways already reflect him. In Christ they find their true meaning.

In Jesus's day, certain men who were experts in the old religion were called scribes. He said of them:

"Every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a rich man who brings out of his storeroom things both old and new" (Matthew 13:52).

Catholic elders like Black Elk, who knew well the spiritual traditions of his people, and also acquired a deep knowledge of Christ, were able to draw on rich treasures of wisdom of both the old and new.

Mixing Religion?

This is not the same as 'mixing' religions. No Catholic can follow two different ways at the same time. Nor is he bound to observe all that is part of the old way. In Christ we are introduced to a new spiritual family with a new freedom.

People criticised Jesus because his disciples did not observe all the old ways. But he told them, "No one sews a patch of new cloth on an old garment; if he does, the patch tears away from it and a worse tear is made" (Matthew 9:16). The meaning is clear. Jesus is doing something new. He is not just patching up former traditions. He is calling the whole human race to a new way.

To every culture God has given a unique gift. When these gifts come together in the great gathering that is the Church, they make up a treasure that enriches the whole People of God. From the First Nations Traditions come ways of prayer and a spiritual awareness that can shed new light on the Gospel, and benefit the whole world.