The joy of love and the consternation of theologiansPrevious Article
Pope issues rules to help contemplative women be beacons for worldNext Article
Breaking News

Mercy sets our hearts free, bishop says at Mass for Native Americans

Line Spacing+- AFont Size+- Print This Article
Mercy sets our hearts free, bishop says at Mass for Native Americans

BROWNING, Mont. (CNS) — Helena Bishop George L. Thomas said at a special Mass for Native Americans that mercy may not “come easily,” but “it’s a gift that sets our hearts free.”

“Mercy transforms us when we need it most,” he said in his homily.

He asked the congregation to “call to mind those who have wronged you, hurt you
and slighted you. Forgive them. Give up resentment. Give a friendly attitude to
those who are not entitled.”

“Mercy doesn’t come easily and may have a personal cost,” he acknowledged. “But it’s a gift that sets our hearts free, lowers blood pressure and gives our body much needed rest.”

It was the 13th time Bishop Thomas said the Mass of the annual North American
Indian Days, held July 7-10. The Mass was celebrated the last day. It was the
45th year the special gathering included a Mass.

Celebrated outdoors in the festival’s main dance arbor and exploding with colorful
clothing, dancing and drumming, this year’s Mass once again was a strong expression
of Native American Catholicism, inculturating Catholic faith into the
participants’ Native American traditions.

The liturgy, which brought together Native Americans from 50 different tribes
across North America, sparkled with Indian customs and symbolism — burning
sage, drummers and headdresses — and powerfully expressed the church’s wide
open embrace of their gifts.

“We need to build our faith within the Indian context,” said Harry Barnes, a
parishioner of Little Flower Parish in Browning and chairman of the Blackfeet
Tribal Council. “Even though the Catholic Church is 2,000 years old, it is the ‘new
kid on the block’ for us natives. We need to combine our local cultures into
the church. Catholicism widens our path.”

An estimated 20 percent of Native Americans are Catholic. In recent decades, the
Catholic Church has made significant efforts to incorporate Indian traditions
into Catholic liturgies, and the Diocese of Helena has made a strong commitment
to ministries with Native Americans.

Celebrated this year for the 65th time, Indian Days is a four-day powwow that draws about
10,000 participants. Hosted by the Blackfeet Nation, Native Americans from
every region of the country and Canada attended. They came together — many dressed
in spectacularly elegant and intricately decorated native attire — to dance,
play games and socialize in the arbor, a stadium-like arena.

Most attendees stayed right at the campgrounds, setting up hundreds of tipis and
tents throughout the grounds. Food booths were scattered about, as well as arts
and souvenirs tables and a few carnival-like rides for children.

The festival included a parade, which weaved through the town of Browning,
featuring businesses, organizations, politicians and families. The parade had vehicles
of all shapes, overflowing with signs, decorations and waving passengers, and horses
were interspersed throughout. During the parade, pounds of candies were thrown
from the passing cars to the children scooping them into bags.

Bishop Thomas greeted the crowd of about 400 by saying, “It is one of the high points
of my year to be with the Blackfeet and to see how much they love and celebrate
the Lord.”

A native of Montana, Bishop Thomas has a deep love for the state and its people.
He is especially close to the Native Americans and has earned their respect.

One of the Blackfeet elders, 92-year-old Gertie Heavy Runner, who attends the
festival annually and had a place of honor at the Mass, said of the bishop, “We
have given him the name ‘Holy Warrior’ because of his courage, wisdom and

Bishop Thomas is keenly aware of the huge challenges that Native Americans face. He understands their struggles with poverty, despair, substance abuse, domestic violence and the
tensions around cultural identity and survival.

Sharing his concern is Father Ed Kohler, one of the priests who concelebrated Indian
Days Mass and the pastor of Little Flower Parish in Browning.

The town of Browning, in the northwestern corner of Montana and close to the
Canadian border and Glacier Park, is located in the Blackfeet Reservation. The
reservation, established by treaty in 1855, runs along the eastern slopes of
the Rocky Mountains, comprising 1.5 million acres, an area larger than the
state of Delaware.

With more than 17,000 members, about half of whom live on the reservation, the
Blackfeet Nation is one of the 10 largest tribes in the United States.

Father Kohler, the only Catholic priest within 30 miles of Browning, has been pastor
since 1982. He sees the struggles of the Indians on the reservation. Recently,
he said funeral Masses three days in a rows for young victims of suicide. Everyone
seems to know someone who has died violently. Especially for young people, life
on the reservation is tough. Thirty percent of its people live below the poverty
line, and unemployment hovers around 80 percent.

Although he said a “dark cloud” hangs over the reservation, he believes that the
Catholic Church can help, he told Extension magazine, which is published by Chicago-based
Catholic Extension.

At Little Flower — a parish of about 250 regulars and another 250 nonregulars —
he initiated the Cursillo movement, a series of retreats and workshops, to help
strengthen the faith of parishioners. Across from the church, he also helped
found the grade school, De La Salle Blackfeet, which has 70 students in grades four
to eight.

For his devotion to Native American Catholics, Father Kohler received Catholic
Extension’s Lumen Christi (“Light of Christ”) Award in 2010.

Catholic Extension is a national fundraising organization founded in 1905 to support the
work and ministries of U.S. mission dioceses, like the Diocese of Helena.

The diocese was established in 1884 and originally encompassed the whole state;
Catholic Extension provided its first church building grant there in 1911. The
diocese now covers more than 50,000 square miles, which is almost double the
size of Ireland. (The rest of the state comprises the Diocese of Great
Falls-Billings, established in 1904.)

Over the years, Catholic Extension has granted more than $20 million in today’s
dollars to the diocese. Sixty-six of these grants have been related to Native
American ministry, half going to Little Flower Parish. In the last five years,
Catholic Extension has extended $1.6 million to the diocese, a total that is in
the top 10 of all dioceses that the organization supports.

Catholic Extension has been a consistent supporter of Catholic Native American
ministries around the country. The organization provides more than $1 million
annually to support such ministries in 20 dioceses.

In his diocese, Bishop Thomas also has been dedicated to investing in young people
through youth, young adult and campus ministries. The result is youth actively
engaged in the church and a growing group of vocations. Currently, the diocese
has 14 seminarians.


Vatican Live Video Feed

Pope Francis on Twitter