Daily Herald

The traditional friars bringing hope to a depressed Native American community

Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit (YouTube)

The Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit offer spiritual hope for a forgotten people

If you want to see how socialism will work in America, visit a Native American reservation and you’ll see the sad truth of it.

I just spent four days with the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit, a new mendicant religious community which wants to revive the Latin Mass, and serve the poor. They do so magnificently, under the direction of Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix who entrusted to them the care of eleven parishes situated around one of the largest Native American reservations in the country.

Not far from comfortable middle-class Phoenix suburbs, we drove past one of the large tribal casinos situated at the reservation border. As a “domestic dependent nation,” as the reservations are also called, the tribe is actually very wealthy, not only from the very profitable casinos but also because they own important water rights in the water-poor Arizona desert. Yet as I drove with the friars deeper into the reservation, I saw real reservation, and with it, profound cultural devastation.

Since the tribes hold their wealth in common, every member of the reservation gets a regular dividend check. The unemployment rate is triple the national average. The opioid crisis is everywhere apparent. Drugs, alcoholism, abuse are an everyday sight for children, few of whom ever see an intact family. The vast majority of children will experience sexual or physical abuse. Half of all teenage girls get pregnant, and very few get-and-stay married.

Driving around the reservation, the friars showed me what looked like soviet-era cinder block homes, with large black numbers painted on the sides indicating their address. When they aren’t guarding their home with menacing barks, feral dogs can sometimes be seen running in packs. Frequently there are broken down children’s toys in the driveways and yards that look like they have not been played in for decades.

Some homes are slightly less distressed than others, so I asked if that was because of pride of ownership. In some cases this is true, as the native people take great pride in their land, but, as I should have guessed, there is no ownership, since there is no private property. It is “tribal housing.” I could see right before my eyes the reason why Pope Leo XIII so passionately defended private property as essential to human dignity. “Private ownership,” Leo writes in Rerum Novarum, “is the natural right of man, and to exercise that right, especially as members of society, is not only lawful, but absolutely necessary.” St Thomas Aquinas also teaches that private property “is necessary for the carrying on of human existence.”

The friars took me to see St Catherine’s, a beautiful white stucco mission church, reminiscent of the ones St Junipero Serra built in California. The church is vacant now but the friars want to renovate it, and begin saying the Old Mass there. Next to it was a large warehouse boarded, and gated up. But you could see that it was once heavily used, with stall windows in front which perhaps once accommodated long lines of people. I asked the friars what it was. “It’s the old food distribution center,” they said. “There are fewer people now, so the food comes in on an 18-wheeler near St. John’s.” Some natives collect their monthly food allotments now from the back of a truck. I suddenly realized there was no grocery store in sight.

St. John’s is the parish where the friars live a different kind of common life. It’s an oasis. A sign of contradiction. They wake up chanting the psalms, and go to sleep chanting the psalms. God is their common life, and so truly there is tranquility of order in the midst of devastation. They are now building a beautiful medieval chapel for the friars within their cloister, inspired by the one in Assisi. But adjacent to their cloister is St. John’s, which was built as a mission church in the 1940s, and then renovated in the 1970s wreck-a-thon style, removing altar rails, painting over everything truly Catholic. The friars have plans to restore that too. But for now they make do.

And yet after three years, they are beginning to trust the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit. In the retreat, I had spoken about Abraham interceding for the people, and so one of the friars said that sometimes they too feel like Abraham interceding for his people. But the friars tell me that Bishop Olmsted teaches that “presence” is the key, God’s presence and theirs.

By some miracle, in the midst of this cultural devastation, St. John’s has gone from 50 sporadic parishioners to over 300 every Sunday. The friars just began celebrating Mass ad orientem, and so I asked if the native parishioners objected. He said that once he explained that “this is how it used to be done,” that facing Christ together was one of “the old ways,” they immediately embraced it as something hopeful, and something their ancestors would have known when they were converted hundreds of years ago by Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries. It struck me as a fitting response.

It’s tragic to see the devastation. It’s like the trail of tears has never ended. But I saw the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit love these people. With the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit I saw a glimpse of hope for these people. Not material hope mind you, since the tribe is immensely wealthy while the people still live in true material and cultural destruction — a lot like the so-called post-Christian West. What I did glimpse, though, was a greater interior hope. Seeing the Eucharistic sacrifice at the heart of the mission, and faithful friars radiating God’s presence in the midst of their suffering, I suddenly felt joy that the image of God, so beaten down, could find a sanctuary, an oasis, life-giving water, even in the desert of desolation. I had hope that these people could be raised up, not by their tribe, but by the City of God in their midst.

C C Pecknold is Associate Professor of Theology, and a Fellow of the Institute for Human Ecology, at The Catholic University of America in Washington, DC