Canadian Indigenous leaders greet the media after a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican April 1. From left are Chief Gerald Antoine of the Assembly of First Nations; Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council; and Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Apology begins path to reconciliation

By 
  • April 6, 2022

ROME -- Never was a single sentence more longed for. In 40 years since survivors began to speak out, 16 years since the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement and seven years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada delivered its final report, nations and peoples have waited for a Pope to speak.

“I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Pope Francis said at the end of an extraordinary week of personal encounters with three delegations of Indigenous peoples from Canada.

“Today we have a piece of the puzzle. We have a heartfelt apology from the Pope,” Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed told the global press hours after the apology had been delivered at an extraordinary audience with all three delegations — Inuit, First Nations and Métis — in Rome, April 1.

But Obed immediately stressed that this apology is the beginning and not the end of a journey Indigenous people have been seeking to go on with the Church and with Canadian society.

“An apology is a part of a much larger picture,” he said.

The bishops have no bone to pick with Obed. They all came away from the apology looking to the future — a future that will give particular shape and meaning to the words spoken by Pope Francis.

“May this lead to many more good steps towards healing and reconciliation,” Archbishop Don Bolen told The Catholic Register.

Calgary Bishop Bill McGrattan put the apology into the context of First Nations’ teaching about seven generations — that a community is custodian of the gifts it has received from seven generations that preceded it and it shoulders a duty to pass those gifts on to the seven generations that will follow.

“It is his (Pope Francis’) hope that the meetings this week will point out new paths,” McGrattan said.

The Pope’s apology is not an attempt to mollify the aggrieved or close the book on a painful history. It is a mandate for the Church in Canada. The Pope’s message to Canadian bishops and the local churches they lead is that they must remain focused on reconciliation with Indigenous people, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said.

“He said (to bishops travelling with the Indigenous delegations) ‘Carry on with what you’re doing, for Heaven’s sake,’ ” said Smith.

Francis’ message to the Indigenous delegations reinforced that mandate of reconciliation he was handing to Canadian Catholics.

“This was such a strong message he spoke to the First Nations delegation, that the Church is on your side,” said Smith. 

The Pope’s apology and the entire week leading up to it was an exercise of papal magisterium at the level of the ordinary teaching of the Church — not an infallible pronouncement, but a demonstration of what the Church holds to be true and which requires our religious assent, including a submission of intellect, mind and will, from all Catholics.

Indigenous legal scholar Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, law professor and director of the Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia, is holding Catholics to their own understanding of obedience to Church teaching. The apology “establishes a fresh agenda for all Catholics in Canada, and indeed beyond,” said Turpel-Lafond.

“Many commentators unfamiliar with Roman law and Church conventions may believe this was simply an episode, a conference or incidental meeting,” said Turpel-Lafond. “It was not. It is a waypoint on an agenda for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples that will unfold over the coming months and years. There will be no going back after this and I expect the words and actions to follow will deepen and expand the apology and support for Indigenous peoples.”

After meeting with Pope Francis on the first day of the historic week, Métis delegate Gary Gagnon came away with a clear sense of just what Pope Francis was teaching, even before the apology was spoken.

“Pope Francis is in the process of what they call synodality,” Gagnon observed. “Synodality, if we look at that word, it really means togetherness… Are you walking just ahead of me or just behind me? Or are we walking side-by-side?”

Gagnon could not have it more right, said Synod of Bishops undersecretary Sr. Nathalie Becquart. The Xaviérian Sister, who is the most senior woman working for Pope Francis in Rome, pointed out that Francis wasn’t teaching synodality by talking about it. He was teaching by doing.

“Here they (Indigenous delegations) come and the first thing that happens is the Pope listens to them,” Becquart said. “The Pope doesn’t begin to teach something, but he listens to them. That’s truly a synodal spirit.”

What the Pope has demonstrated in his encounters with Indigenous delegations is not a message directed solely at his brother bishops. It’s a message for the whole Church and every Catholic.

“Now the challenge for Canada is that it’s not just the bishops and the president of the bishops’ conference that joins this process with your people,” said Becquart. “It’s a sign. It’s a symbol. It’s a very strong symbol. It’s to foster a process of reconciliation with all the citizens from Canada, especially the Catholic Church.”

Gagnon puts this teaching about synodality into the context of one of the first remarkable statements Pope Francis made after his election in 2013.

“I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a Church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security,” Francis wrote in Evangelium Gaudium.

The Church Pope Francis wants is the one Indigenous people are looking for, Gagnon said. But Gagnon looks at the Church today and is mystified by how listening and synodality are resisted.

“We’re not saying, ‘Give up your
faith,’ ” said Gagnon. “It’s got nothing to do with that. We just ask that you acknowledge that ‘Yeah, something did happen.’ Acknowledge that maybe something wasn’t right.”

King’s University College historian Robert Ventresca, who studies the development of papal relationships with nations, emphasizes how the apology sets the entire Church on a path.

“An official apology is just the start of a long process of truth-seeking that must precede healing and reconciliation,” he said. “I take Francis at his word when he says the Church is not afraid of history.”

But Ventresca also cautions that, in talking about how the Church responds, we must not lose our focus on residential school survivors and their communities.

“This apology isn’t about the Pope or about the bishops or about the Church even,” he wrote in an email. “First and foremost, it’s about the victims of teachings and practices that resulted from a destructive accommodation between the Church and the structures of colonial racism.”

Survivor Theodore Quewezance sees clearly the systemic and structural dimension of the sin of residential schools. It’s a kind of sin that requires a systemic and structural atonement.

“The Pope, if he’s in the mode of apologizing, is going to be delegating his authority down to the bishops and to the parishioners,” Quewezance said two nights before Pope Francis issued his historic apology. “They have to make a choice. Right now there’s a lot of denial across Canada with parishioners; a lot of denial by government. So it’s about choice.”

The choice Indigenous delegations are asking the Pope and the entire Church to make is to see Indigenous people as more than the objects of some kind of industrial process of evangelization.

“Indigenous people, Métis and the Inuit, we’re all human beings,” he said.

A Church teaching that Indigenous land was terra nullius stands at the very base of centuries of treating Indigenous people as the raw material that must be fed into a process of civilizing, acculturating, assimilating and evangelizing them.

When Pope Francis arrives in Canada, possibly to take part in the pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta in July, what was begun in Rome will continue on Indigenous land and in the Canadian Church.

“What does it mean when a pope apologizes? What you want to ask is, why was it so important for the TRC to ask the Pope to make a public apology?” said Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford. “It’s because they perceive and see the systemic dimension of this.”

The process Indigenous people and non-Indigenous Catholics will engage in to fulfil Pope Francis’ apology will not be simple, standard, cut-and-dried or predictable.

“Reconciliation doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a one-off. Words are not enough,” said Clifford.

But the Pope has shown us the way by first listening.

“All came away with their heads held high, because they had been heard and they had been received in their dignity as human persons. That’s essential,” Clifford said.

“Here we are heard,” declared Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron. “It’s absolutely historic. … An apology is the first step forward, but there is much work to be done and there is much action to be done.”

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