Kamloops residents and First Nations people gather to listen to drummers and singers at a memorial in front of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on May 31. CNS photo/Dennis Owen, Reuters

Burial site discoveries top of mind of repentance panel

  • November 5, 2021

As coincidence would have it, on the same day Pope Francis expressed his willingness to visit Canada to foster reconciliation with Indigenous people, St. Mary’s University and St. Joseph’s College in Alberta jointly hosted an online speaker’s panel called “CatholicismRepentance.”

While the featured Western Canadian theologians made broader observations on what it means for a Catholic to exhibit repentance, most of the 90-minute gathering was centred on the Catholic Church’s response to thousands of burial sites being uncovered earlier this year at former residential schools run by the Church and its entities.

Christopher Hrynkow, a professor at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, said Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ offers “an antidote” to engender better relations with First Nations communities.

“Francis taught that we must take special care for Indigenous communities and their traditions. They are not merely one minority among others, but should be the principal dialogue partners,” said Hrynkow.

Hrynkow hypothesized that the institution of the Roman Catholic Church projecting itself as “a perfect society” — Pope Leo XIII wrote “societasperfecta” in his 1885 encyclical Immortale Dei — can distort the truth.

“The exclusivist notion of the Catholic Church as the ‘perfect society’ allows sin to only exist among erring members and not in the corporate, social and institutional senses,” he said.

Dr. Nick Olkovich, an assistant professor and chair of Catholic theology at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver, says Church leaders have a responsibility to listen to lay parishioners when it comes to charting the course forward.

“It has to come from the grassroots, the broader people of God, including settler Canadians who were ashamed at the news of this past summer,” said Olkovich. “The petitions that went around were quickly populated by thousands of people (and) is a sign of a prophetic dimension that all the baptized are called to.”

Olkovich said special attention should be paid to “those who have been excluded, living in poverty or on the margins, especially by institutions that have put them there and kept them there.”

Dr. Doris Kieser, associate professor of theology at St. Joseph’s College, mentioned a potential symbolic act of repentance that could be undertaken by Canadian Catholics.

“I really think the image of settler Catholics and Catholics in general lying prostate for Indigenous and marginalized peoples in Canada, including Indigenous Catholics, which have huge numbers, there has to be something of that magnitude,” she said.

An audience member inquired of the panelists if they thought the apology rendered by the Canadian bishops on Sept. 24 would be successful. If not, what would a successful apology look like?

“I don’t think an apology in and of itself is sufficient here,” said Kieser. “Part of what I’m trying to say here is that we’re going to have to reiterate this act of repentance for a long time.”

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