Phil Fontaine, former leader of the Assembly of the First Nations, received an apology from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI during his visit at the Vatican April 29, 2009. CNS Photo/ Max Rossi, Reuters

Editorial: More work to do

  • April 5, 2018

The Catholic relationship with Canada’s Indigenous peoples no doubt wobbled with the announcement that Pope Francis is not coming here to offer the apology so explicitly called for by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After so much suffering, it could hardly be otherwise.

But despite how it has been widely portrayed, this development is far from a death knell for reconciliation. If anything, it is a call to intensify efforts to atone for Catholic complicity in the cultural, emotional and physical mistreatment of Indigenous children at residential schools.

It is unclear why the Pope is not coming. The announcement was made March 27 in a letter from the Canadian bishops to Indigenous peoples. It said the Pope carefully considered the matter and, after extensive dialogue with the bishops, “he felt that he could not personally respond.”

So is this a case of the bishops, who seem divided on the question, advising against the visit, or was an invitation extended and declined by the Pope for reasons of his own? This being the Church, often opaque when it comes to transparency, we may never know. But either way, the lack of clarity left the Pope to be portrayed unfairly as unsympathetic and unapologetic. 

Senator Murray Sinclair, who chaired the TRC, claimed the Pope’s decision implies that the Church has a low regard for Indigenous peoples and indicates a refusal to accept responsibility for past misdeeds. “It’s saying that Indigenous people in Canada are not worthy of his apology,” said Sinclair. 

His frustration is understandable, but his conclusion misguided.

The TRC report that Sinclair oversaw was exhaustive in most respects, but it failed to accurately report a 2009 apology Pope Benedict XVI extended to Canada’s Indigenous peoples. He personally apologized on behalf of the Church to a delegation headed by Phil Fontaine, the former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Afterwards, Fontaine said Native leaders expected the Pope to acknowledge their suffering and say he was sorry, “and we heard that very clearly.” 

Benedict’s mea-culpa followed several apologies from Canadian Church leaders. Sinclair is entitled to speculate on why the Pope will not heed the TRC call to come to Canada, but it is disingenuous and unhelpful to suggest the Church lacks remorse for the past or respect for those who have suffered. 

 That sincere contrition and a pledge to continue on a path of healing was evident in almost every paragraph of the letter from the Canadian bishops’ to the Indigenous peoples. A papal visit might have supplied balm for the wounds (not to mention photo-ops for politicians), but it wouldn’t have solved the problem. That will take years of work.

The Pope’s decision is hardly a dead end for reconciliation, just another hill on a long, twisting road.

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