Study period at Roman Catholic Indian Residential School, [Fort] Resolution, Northwest Territories, date unknown. Canada. Department of Mines and Technical Surveys. Library and Archives Canada, PA-042133

Political tension around papal apology hurts present reconciliation efforts, bishop says

  • May 22, 2018

OTTAWA – Those on the front lines of reconciliation are hopeful Pope Francis will say what needs to be said at the right time, in spite of the “pressure” that has been put on a papal apology on Canadian soil.

“I really think and believe and pray that it will happen. It needs to happen at the right time,” said Keewatin-Le Pas Archbishop Murray Chatlain at a reconciliation event in Ottawa May 15.

Chatlain said much of the recent drama around a papal apology on the Church’s role in residential schools is a result of “pressure” on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) from the government, though he was not specific on who applied the pressure or when.

In the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for a papal apology on Canadian soil, the bishops have been working on drawing up a statement and have started listening to Indigenous people on the question of “what would be most helpful for you to hear,” Chatlain said. 

Once that statement was ready, the plan was to “find a place and a time and pray that Pope Francis would make his response,” Chatlain said. “Unfortunately, we get the pressure put on us by the government. They wanted an answer quickly.”

He said the bishops were “not exactly thrilled with the government response to the Catholic Church,” he said. “Political tensions got in the way.”

The result was a March 27 letter from the president of the CCCB to the Indigenous peoples of Canada that the Pope “could not personally respond” to the TRC’s call for a papal apology.

“We got crucified PR-wise and the people who are trying (to make efforts at reconciliation) are the ones who get hurt,” said the archbishop. “It’s very unfortunate how it came about.”

The matter of a papal apology has been a “big debate” for the bishops, that has involved both good will and preparation, he said.  “The bishops represent various approaches to the Catholic faith. They can’t always agree quickly. There have been some real struggles.”

With no formal invitation for the Pope to visit Canada from the bishops, Canada’s Parliament passed its own motion May 1 to ask the Pope to apologize in Canada for abuses in residential schools.

Chatlain stressed that the March 27 letter left open the Pope’s coming to apologize. 

“People have reacted with confusion, anger and dissatisfaction,” and “a lot of emotions came out,” said Elder Rosella Kinoshameg, co-chair of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle and a member of the Wikwemikong First Nation on Manitoulin Island in northern Ontario.

“There was still a lot of hope because people still have their belief that was unshaken,” Kinoshameg said. “In my community there was no dwindling of attendance at church. Nobody said anything.

“One person said, ‘How many time does the Pope have to apologize?’ ”

The Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, a Catholic coalition of Indigenous people, bishops, religious orders and lay organizations, was created last year by the CCCB to respond to the TRC’s Calls to Action, Chatlain said.

The archbishop said he has personally apologized three times to residential school survivors. He said the second time he set foot in Yellowknife after being named Bishop of MacKenzie-Fort Smith, a journalist asked him: “When will you apologize to the survivors” of the residential schools?

It took three years for Chatlain to hear the stories and understand “so the words would mean something.”

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