A child's red dress hangs on a stake near the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School June 6, 2021. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

2021: A Church in crisis confronts its sins

By 
  • December 22, 2021

This entire year turned on three unexpected words — “ground-penetrating radar.”

On May 27 the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation announced that, using ground-penetrating radar, a survey of the land next to the old Kamloops Indian Residential School had revealed up to 215 unmarked graves. News of children who died far from home now lying in neglected and forgotten graves, without the acknowledgement of even a wooden cross, caused a sharp intake of breath across the nation.

How could this be? What kind of a society disposes of dead children in an empty field? What kind of a Church, what kind of Christians, would oversee such perfunctory, bureaucratic funerals in the absence of parents, brothers, sisters? What kind of Church operates a so-called education system that saw so many of its students disappear and die?

“Maybe it’s a good thing for this discovery to have happened,” Rosella Kenoshameg of the Guadalupe Circle told The Catholic Register in June. “Maybe now the truth will sink in, that it really happened. These are not just stories that are made up.”

Residential schools were created in the 1880s by a government policy of assimilation designed to strip Indigenous people of their culture. Churches were enlisted to operate the schools and of the 139 schools identified in the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, 64 were run by Catholic entities.

Archeologist Sarah Beaulieu said her survey in Kamloops “barely scratched the surface,” meaning that she had investigated less than two of the 65 hectares on the site of the former residential school which was run by the Missionary Oblates. But that scratch picked off the scab from a deep wound. Regina Archbishop Don Bolen told The Catholic Register, “What we are grappling with here is the deepest historical wound there is in this country. It is the wound connected to colonization and everything that flowed from it.”

The wound is still unhealed six years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report, 13 years after Prime Minister Stephen Harper apologized on behalf of the nation, 15 years after the courts, government and churches agreed Indigenous people must be compensated for generations of deliberate damage done to children, families and to Indigenous cultures in the residential school system.

In June the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan added another 751 unmarked graves to the tally. Again, ground-penetrating radar on land next to a Catholic-run Indian residential school.

As Canada’s bishops met for their annual plenary in September they knew they were being called to account. They were facing a crisis.

“We also sorrowfully acknowledge the historical and ongoing trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by Indigenous peoples that continue to this day. Along with those Catholic entities which were directly involved in the operation of the schools and which have already offered their own heartfelt apologies, we, the Catholic Bishops of Canada, express our profound remorse and apologize unequivocally,” the bishops declared in an apology each of them issued individually, taking responsibility whether their diocese ran residential schools or not.

The bishops seemed to know that this apology — six years after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission had called for a papal apology on Canadian soil, and three years after a letter from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to Indigenous Canadians declared that the Pope could not fulfil this request — would not immediately or by itself change minds.

The bishops scrambled to revive plans, suspended 15 months before by COVID, to bring Indigenous people — residential school survivors, youth and knowledge keepers — to Rome to speak with Pope Francis. Pope Francis responded by committing to come to Canada “on a pilgrimage of healing and reconciliation.” Dates were set in December, but COVID then returned to postpone those plans. As the year rounds to a close, new dates for the Rome visit sometime in the spring are being contemplated.

The children’s bodies whose images are revealed by ground-penetrating radar are not just another unfortunate event in the history of Indigenous people and the Catholic Church in Canada.

“The Church is in a state of crisis in Canada,” said Michael Higgins, St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi Colleges’ interim president and vice chancellor .

But in Higgins’ view the childrens’ bodies are not the crisis. Reports that unmarked graves were there in forgotten cemeteries all across the country stretch back to the 1990s. What was revealed was an even deeper problem for the Catholic Church — “a crisis of leadership tied to public credibility,” Higgins said.

Archdiocese of Regina theologian Brett Salkeld does not dispute that the Church is in crisis.

“The Church is always, practically by definition, in crisis,” he said. “Things have never been rosy. Read Paul to the Corinthians.”

"Let us remember the Church always has difficulties, always is in crisis, because she’s alive."

- Pope Francis

For Salkeld there’s nothing for it but to confront our crises.

“The crisis in the Church is what it always is — namely, sinners being confronted by their sins,” he wrote in an e-mail. “Crosses are an odd kind of good news…. Graves and their uncovering are such valuable biblical images. We roll stones in front of things and hope to forget about the death behind them. But our God is a God who rolls those stones away and reveals death for what it really is and, by so doing, takes away its power. Death thrives in the dark. But light has come into the world.”

It isn’t just bishops who have to face these facts. A handful of ordinary non-Indigenous laywomen came together on Facebook over the summer to discuss what had happened to children torn away from Indigenous mothers. They soon sought conversations with Indigenous women, then launched a website to raise money and support for healing and reconciliation — money their Church had failed to raise in a “best efforts” campaign that produced just $3.7 million between 2008 and 2014 out of a $25-million goal.

The Catholics For Truth and Reconciliation campaign, with no official backing and no marketing budget, raised over $26,000 in three months.

Catholics4TR planning committee member Erin Kinsella avoids the word crisis when she talks about the Church. “I would use the words ‘in need of
reform,’ ” she said. “In the sense that there’s a long way to go in terms of reconciliation.”

The Catholics4TR campaign was never set up in opposition to the bishops and Kinsella is loathe to criticize Church leadership now or in the past. It’s ordinary Catholics up and down the pews who have to embrace this legacy, she said.

“We still have work to do in terms of every Catholic in Canada taking some responsibility for participating in that reconciliation,” she said.

Despite all the new church buildings and full churches in Catholic Canada during the Indian residential school era of 1880 to 1997, there was “a real crisis of holiness” seeded in the Church, according to Kinsella.

“It should not have been possible for the things that have happened to have happened,” she said. “It is always hard to judge things through a historical lens, but there are some things that are never right at any point in time. Stripping children from their families is never right. Abuse is never right. Stripping culture is never right.”

Kinsella knows there’s hope. She’s been listening to Pope Francis talk about synodality and watching the slow rollout of the largest public consultation ever attempted in human history. Officially launched Oct. 11, the global Synod on Synodality will matter to Catholics in Canada.

“We’re not in a democratic Church. We don’t have a democratic Church and it was not founded to be a democratic Church. But it also wasn’t founded to be autocratic or totalitarian,” said Kinsella.

The alternative to any merely political understanding of the Church is Pope Francis’ hope for a listening Church. A listening Church matters in Canada.

“Figuring out what it means to really listen to each other will be key in the reconciliation process, because the reconciliation process is primarily about listening and about trying to understand another person’s pain, or understand another person’s experience, as a foundation for building that healing and reconciliation,” Kinsella said.

For Catholics across the country it feels like a crisis. It feels like reconciliation can’t happen fast enough. But that’s the point. It actually can’t happen fast. It won’t happen automatically just because the Pope comes here to apologize. Reconciliation is the slow work of humility — a job handed to all of us with our baptism.

Canada’s Catholics cannot rescue themselves. But they have been given one saving gift in the generous spirit of Indigenous Catholics who have offered their hand to us over and over. Deacon Harry Lafond, Indigenous education scholar at St. Thomas More College in the University of Saskatchewan, believes reconciliation is possible.

“More so than at any other time in our history, Catholics, there are enough of them with an open spirit that we can build on,” he said.

“For me, the greatest thing is an awareness. You have to start discussions on misunderstandings,” said Mi’kmaq elder and former New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas. “How do Catholics respond to what’s happening?”

In August, Pope Francis had a message for Catholics who fear for the future of the Church.

“Let us remember the Church always has difficulties, always is in crisis, because she’s alive,” said Francis. “Living things go through crises. Only the dead don’t have crises. Let us pray for the Church, that she may receive from the Holy Spirit the grace and strength to reform herself in the light of the Gospel.”

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