By Virginia De Witt, Archivist
The North American Redemptorist History Conference, held at Oconomowoc, focused on the topic of Redemptorists and race this year. Bishop Jon Hansen offered his perspective, gained from his years in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, NWT, on this complex subject during his talk on the Redemptorist pastoral response to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
“The life of a Northern missionary involves going out and finding the people where they are,” he said. This commitment to respectful engagement with Indigenous peoples within their own culture is at the core of “the call within a call” – the vocational path that leads a priest to the Far North. He added with a smile, “I was chosen because I love the cold.”
Bishop Jon emphasized the challenges confronting first the Oblate Missionaries and then the Redemptorists as they sought to minister in the North. Factors such as the racial and linguistic complexity of the more than 600 distinct groups across Canada, including the Arctic; that Indigenous social structures, particularly surrounding marriage, long pre-date the arrival of Christian culture; and that Christianity has been present in the Far North only since 1907. Additionally, social problems such as addiction, poverty without opportunity, racism, loneliness and alienation are ongoing.
Bishop Jon also spoke about the specter of the residential school system which still haunts pastoral attempts to engage with Indigenous peoples. He noted that their alienation has increased in the shadow of the official response to the scandal.
In the face of these challenges, his Redemptorist formation has given Bishop Jon a strong foundation for facing these issues, if not solving them. In his initial engagement with Indigenous peoples, he related that he held on to the image of St. Alphonsus going to Scala, reminding him of the core Redemptorist mission to minister to the “poorest of the poorest of the poor.”
Outwardly, he noted that the Redemptorists have been well received by Indigenous peoples in the North. There is a high degree of respect for priests if the people are first treated with respect themselves. When this happens, the Redemptorist presence can act as a bridge to the institutional Church. In return, Redemptorists have gained the “school of the poor” from the Indigenous peoples themselves as, Bishop Jon asserted, “we need to learn to share like they do.”
Bishop Jon ended on a hopeful note regarding his ministry to Indigenous peoples of the Far North, “they love to pray and they long for God – something you don’t often see.”