An untraditional involvement

Interview with Achiel PEELMAN, omi

Father Achiel Peelman, Oblate of Mary Immaculate, recently visited the General House. He was born in the Flemish part of Belgium in 1942 – diocese of Ghent – but has been teaching at the St. Paul University in Ottawa since 1972. He ranks among the experts of the traditional religion of the First Nations of Canada. He readily welcomed our questions; we invite you to discover him in this interview.

  • You came to Rome at the invitation of the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue. What was the purpose of the trip?

I came to take part in a symposium on “traditional religions and their contribution to peace” which was held in the Vatican January 12-15, 2005. The initiative for this meeting came from the Pope himself who wants more attention paid to the traditional religions. This meeting follows from one in 2003 that brought together representatives of the world religions to examine what their Scriptures and their texts say about peace. Our purpose, therefore, was to do the same thing with the traditional religions. We were 25 Catholic experts from five areas of the world: North America, South America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. All are working with traditional religions.

  • What surprised you?

The fact that almost everywhere, the traditional religions have a rather similar concept of peace. It is much more than the absence of war and conflicts; peace is understood as the full realization of life.

I was also struck by the calibre of the participants. All had a written contribution on subjects such as the role of women, the concepts of peace, the situations of the religions faced with conflicts etc. All were completely open to listen to the others. In the traditional religions there are certainly elements that form part of a universal patrimony. But in the context of globalisation it is becoming difficult also for them to maintain their values. That is why we are concerned to help them to safeguard these values and to transmit them.

  • From when does the Church’s dialogue with the traditional religions date?

It is a very new initiative, which appeared officially for the first time at the meeting in Assisi in 1986. Before that inter-religious dialogue had been limited to the Great Religions of the world: Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. We understood gradually that it must also extend to the religions known as traditional. When we look at the dialogue of Christianity with these religions, we realize that there are two types of dialogue:

– Inter-religious dialogue between Christianity and the non-Christian members of these religions;

– The second type intra-religious dialogue: inside the Church between the Christians that come from these religions and who want to keep their heritage. This last type is very important in the process of inculturation.

At the end of the symposium, the president, Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, expressed the hope that the conclusions of our meeting would be communicated to the local Churches where these religions are still much alive and influential.

With Fr. Marcel DUMAIS, omi, General Counsellor.

  • Our readers would really like to know who you are, so say something about yourself.

I have been a professor at St. Paul University in Ottawa since 1971. I arrived in Canada in 1962, after my novitiate in the Belgium North Province (Flanders). After finishing my studies in Ottawa, I went to Strasbourg to start a doctorate in Religious Sciences at a Protestant faculty.

  • And why at a Protestant faculty?

I wanted an ecumenical experience, to work in a Protestant environment. Those were the new times of Ecumenism. And paradoxically, it was Mr. Gerard Siegwalt who directed me towards Hans Urs von Balthasar, finding that this Catholic theologian deserved to be better known in his own Church.

  • The path from Urs von Balthasar to the First Nations of Canada is not obvious: What brought you to work in this field?

Upon my return to Ottawa, I was soon involved with the training of Amerindian lay leaders and I became interested in Amerindian spirituality. It was an immense jump, but logical. Balthasar tried to connect academic theology to spirituality, but remained very locked up in the European cultural world. I found that I needed to look at other cultures, for example to Africa or Asia… but finally I stayed in Canada.

  • Your meeting with traditional religion went beyond simple knowledge, it became a personal experience, tell us something about that?

My decision to remain in Canada came after a dream. It was already very Amerindian, because dreams for them are like moments of “revelation”. This dream was telling me that I should study the situation and the future of the Oblate Missions throughout Canada. So, I made a plan that led me to visit the Oblates from one ocean to the other. As soon as I got under way, the Amerindians made me understand that my approach was too much from within the Church and that I should concentrate more on their culture. Their spiritual leaders invited me to visit them and thus I was able to become initiated into their spirituality, in particular that of the Cree in Alberta. It is a step that I accepted without hesitation, because to understand this spirituality, there was only one way: to experience and live it from within.

  • You thus did a course of initiation. What does that consist in?

The important practice is that of the “Vision Quest”. You subject yourself to a complete fast from food and drink for four days, in a sacred place, under the supervision of a traditional Medicine Man (a spiritual leader). I was also invited to practice many other rituals and to have many contacts with the Wise ones. That enabled me to have a privileged view of them, while deepening my own Christian spirituality.

  • When people ask why the Church prohibited their traditional practices in the past but it now seems to encourage them, what do you answer?

It is necessary to put this question in its context. I take myself as an example: this course of initiation helped me to reflect on the inculturation and the development of an Amerindian church. In Canada many Amerindians became Christians but they always wonder: can one be at the same time Amerindian and Christian or must one choose? And this question comes from people who want to really achieve a synthesis between the Christian faith and their own culture. It is true that in the past the Church had a negative view of these practices, but the Church has looked more in depth at the bonds between cultures and the faith, and can now encourage human groups to develop themselves, with the assistance of their local pastors, a synthesis between their cultural knowledge and the Christian faith. As Oblates we are invited to take part with the people in this synthesis and this harmony.

This new approach to Mission is due to the movement of cultural rebirth which the First Nations have been undergoing since the 1970s and which has many implications for Canadian society and the Churches. This rebirth means the end of any plan of assimilation, whether political or religious.

  • Will the First Nations give up the Christian heritage or are new relations being considered?

There are surely a certain number of Amerindians who, in the present cultural context, take a very critical view of the Mission as lived in the past, but that is not to say that they will leave the Church. There is a great need for healing, for reconciliation, and as missionaries we must be ready to enter into this movement of mutual healing. We need to remake our relations. In this connection, I have a very concrete example, that of Chief Harry Lafond who strongly underlined all that during the Synod of Bishops for America in 1997. This Cree chief was the only layperson to address the Pope and the Bishops, and his message related to the future of the Catholic Church in the Amerindian milieus in Canada. He greeted the Pope as a “true Elder” and he invited the Church “to continue to walk together while leaning on each other.” He also said, “We must dare to take bold decisions like ordaining priests some of the spiritual men who emerge in our cultures, or by granting a sacramental value to some of our rituals, which are rituals of healing and reconciliation that can be lived as an expression of our faith in Christ the Saviour.”

I believe that it is by listening to this kind of message and by counting on these key people that we will be able to advance towards the future.

  • You have also published some books, have you not?

In 1995 I published a book entitled “Le Christ est amérindien” (Christ is an Amerindian) in which I develop the Amerindian vision of Christ, traditional spirituality and some orientations for the development of an Amerindian Church. In 2004 I published another work: “L’Esprit est amérindien” (The Spirit is Amerindian) where I treat of my own initiation into Amerindian spirituality and of the relation between this spirituality and Christianity. It is part of Médiaspaul’a collection “Spirituality in dialogue”. The collection seeks to emphasize the practice of “spiritual hospitality”. It is with Médiaspaul that I have just published a very technical work on the “Théodramatique” of Hans Urs von Balthasar, a sign that I did not forget my Western roots.”

Interview by Jean-Pierre CALOZ, OMI