PRINCE ALBERT — On the first day of his visit to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Prince Albert, Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi, Apostolic Nuncio to Canada, spent time at Muskeg Lake Cree Nation.
The urban councillor of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Paul Ledoux, gave the official welcome and asked the nuncio to carry messages from the First Nation to the Holy Father.
An elder from the community welcomed the nuncio. She told him she had watched the televised visit of Pope Francis to the United States and was continuing to pray for him.
Rev. Tuyen Vu, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Muskeg Lake and three other parishes in the area, said he prayed for the nuncio to have the grace needed for his ministry in Canada.
Mark Arcand, vice-chief of the Saskatoon Tribal Council (STC) Treaty Office, also welcomed the nuncio. “We believe it’s important and a sign that you are here that we all need to work together. You are welcome to be part of our families, suppers and songs; you are making a difference with our young people.”
Councillor Harry Lafond of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation explained the significance of the traditional smudging ceremony as it was performed.
A representative from St. Michael Parish at Beardy’s and Okemasis First Nation spoke on being Cree and Catholic today. He spoke of the challenges of difficult roads, upkeep on an old building and sharing a parish priest. He was grateful for the aid sent by Catholic Missions in Canada to help bring in a priest.
Sturgeon Lake First Nation representative A.J. Felix described his earliest memory of church as going to Christmas Midnight Mass on a sleigh pulled by horses strapped with bells. Children sat covered in blankets between bales, while the teams of horses steamed from the hard work in the snow. Felix remembered glorious music and feeling the presence of something special. Once mass was done, they stopped at every home until they reached their own.
He told the congregation that confirmation and baptism are special to those living in Muskeg Lake. To them, God is everywhere. He explained the spirits of the four directions and the tradition of smudging with sweetgrass, a part of their people for thousands of years. He said the First Nations people smudge for healing, hope, blessing, cleansing, prayer, sickness, the birth of a new child and as their elders go out of the world.
Bishop Albert Thévenot, M. Afr., told the congregation the path that lies before them is the goodness of God, which we are all called to share in, but we should not live in the past.
“To follow our life is a path. We need to tell our stories but not remain in them. The drums call us to celebrate. Today we are creating bonds. Before us lies a new season. Let us open ourselves to the Creator.”
The Ave Maria was sung in Cree by Dolores Sand, followed by the prayer of the four directions. The readings were spoken in English and Cree.
The elders were invited to surround the nuncio as he bowed his head for a blessing. Many came to raise their hands over him.
The nuncio said he was filled by the deep experience. He sensed the road he had travelled to the church was a true Canadian road, showing for him a true Canadian experience.
“I listened tonight like never before, especially to the Christmas story. The description — never before have I heard a story like it. This event helps me make a reference to a passage from St. Paul to the Corinthians. Christmas is a beautiful story, an event at which we become a new Christian. Deep inside us, we aspire to recognize God who lives. He says, ‘I cannot stay alone without my children. I wish to go and stay with them, unite my life and live with them until their death and to embrace them in their death to eternal life.’ This is what Jesus has done — his life with ours. This is our Saviour.”
All who attended the celebration went for a potluck supper at the Kihiw Waciston gymnasium across the road from the church. An elder from the community blessed the meal. Men, women and children came forward to perform traditional dances as young men from Big River First Nation drummed together.
Ending the evening, Harry Lafond presented the nuncio with tobacco and an eagle feather, each in a homemade wooden box. Necklaces of wooden beads were given to Thévenot and the nuncio. The young drummers presented them with a drumming stick.
The nuncio spoke to the pastors on being a priest and about the new evangelization. “The ordained ministry can only be carried out as a collective work,” he stressed. “It is in communion with my bishop and all my brother priests that I serve my parish.”
On his last day in the Prince Albert diocese, the nuncio celebrated mass with diocesan staff in their chapel area. He encouraged them to continue their work bringing faith to communities in the diocese. He joined the bishop and the diocesan staff for a breakfast prepared by staff members. He presented a special Vatican coin to the diocesan staff as a token of his prayers
Reflecting on the visit, Thévenot said he feels Archbishop Bonazzi now has a better understanding of reality in the prairies. “I believe he left with joyful feelings.”