The year 2022 was unlike any other in the history of Canada’s Catholic Church. Sure, we have had papal visits before, but none quite like the one Pope Francis embarked upon this past summer. The Pope came with penance in mind as he apologized for past wrongs done to Canada’s Indigenous people by the Church, the first time at Maskwacis in Alberta (pictured) and then at stops throughout his tour. Thousands came to see the Pope during his six-day journey, many carrying the scars of past injustices. The Pope’s pilgrimage of penance got its start at the Vatican in March and early April when a delegation of Indigenous, Inuit and Metis people met with him. Photo by Michael Swan

2022 — a year of reconciliation, a year of hope

  • December 22, 2022

Mere memory is not enough for the year we have just lived. Misty-eyed nostalgia would be a sin. It would fall far short of the mark.

Above all, this has been the year of reconciliation. Not that we have achieved it by any means, but Pope Francis has come knocking on our door to remind us that reconciliation is what a Christian is and does.

In Rome and Edmonton, Maskwacis and Lac Ste. Anne, Quebec City and Ste. Anne de Beaupre, in Iqaluit and above the Atlantic, Pope Francis came to the Indigenous people of Canada in our name, in the Church’s name, to beg forgiveness and plead the case for a new bond of love and respect between Indigenous and the non-Indigenous. 

He remembered the children who paid a terrible price for Canada’s dream of a homogeneous, modern nation unencumbered by its original people and their deep bond to the land of their ancestors.

“The memory of those children is indeed painful: it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect,” Francis told the First Nations crowd July 25 at Maskwacis, Alta., 90 kilometres south of Edmonton, as he delivered the apology to Canada’s Indigenous for harms done by the Church and its people. “We want to walk together, to pray together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation.”

The humble Pope came to offer something more than mere regret. He came to offer hope.

“Looking to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient,” he said. “Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening.”

Looking ahead is the very basis of Christian hope, not naivete or arrogant optimism. But can we pray Maranatha while reconciliation is neglected?

That our Church bought into Canada’s political dream and marshalled its spiritual resources in service of misguided nation building is the source of our shame. It is (not was, for it will always be) a betrayal of Christ, who is in His members Indigenous, said St. Pope John Paul II 40 years ago.

In the name of The Catholic Register and generations of readers who have brought us to this moment, I was in Rome March 28 with three delegations of Indigenous Canadians — First Nations, Inuit and Metis — as they began meeting with Pope Francis. These meetings were to lay the groundwork, establish contact and some measure of trust prior to a papal visit to Canada.

This was history, of course. Pope Francis was receiving Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors and youth in the same rooms where Popes have for generations received heads of state and world leaders. Indeed he was giving more time to them than he would to any politician, monarch or Nobel laureate.

Journalists are there to take the rough measure of history as it happens. In Rome, my newspapering instincts told me this was not yet the summit of the story. As I visited Vatican dicasteries, patrolled the edges of St. Peter’s Square and took my place in the crowd of journalists hoping for a moment of delicate and difficult conversation with residential school survivors, I told myself we were still in the antechambers of history. I wasn’t expecting a papal apology then. 

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada had requested a papal apology on Canadian soil. If anyone asked (and they did) I told them, “Wait. The Pope will respond to what he hears now when he comes to Canada.”

The Pope knows better than I.

"God Himself bound us in that moment to one another — not in spite of our sins or freed from our past, for there is no holy amnesia, but because we are His and He is merciful."

“I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” he told all three delegations gathered together in the apostolic palace, April 1.

When CTV’s Jill Macyshon called me up for comment, I thought she got it wrong. I had to read the text twice. Then the light went on. Of course, Pope Francis had come in contact with human suffering. Survivors told him about sexual abuse, humiliation, beatings, starvation rations and the friends they had lost to drugs, alcohol, trauma and mental breakdown in the years after their so-called education. 

He heard the stories of young men and women who came home from their years of schooling and found themselves unable to speak to their own mothers because they had lost their mother tongue — because the residential school had accomplished exactly the result it was created for.

This Pope does not file away sin and suffering. He could not put any of what he heard on a shelf. He is as human as we all hope to be. He apologized.

By the time Pope Francis got to Canada, the apology itself had laid the ground for a deeper reflection. Beyond that simple, honest word of “sorry,” Pope Francis was ready to offer the reconciliation the Church proclaims and enacts when it lives true to the Gospel.

“Nothing can ever take away the violation of dignity, the experience of evil, the betrayal of trust. Or take away our own shame, as believers,” Pope Francis told the resilient and joyful parishioners of Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton during his July pilgrimage. “Yet we need to set out anew, and Jesus does not offer us nice words and good intentions, but the Cross: the scandalous love that allows His hands and feet to be pierced by nails, and His head to be crowned with thorns.”

I stood in the choir loft watching Pope Francis struggle to his feet as he greeted Indigenous mothers and daughters, while he recognized the people for who they are and what they have endured. At a certain point I stopped hoping for a better picture, stopped wishing I could find better words to convey this moment, and realized that Christ was present, incarnate. God Himself bound us in that moment to one another — not in spite of our sins or freed from our past, for there is no holy amnesia, but because we are His and He is merciful.

There are questions we must answer and Pope Francis did not hesitate to ask them of the Church in Canada.

“Are we brothers, or competitors split into parties? And how about our relationships with those who are not ‘one of our own’? With those who do not believe? With those who have different traditions and customs?” Pope Francis asked at vespers in the gilded jewel box of Quebec City’s Cathedral. “This is the way: to build relationships of fraternity with everyone, with Indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet, because the presence of God is reflected in each of their faces.”

Would you use the word genocide, Pope Francis was asked on the flight back to Rome.

“It is true; yes, it’s genocide” he said. “You can say that I said that, yes, that it was genocide. (In English) Yes. Yes. Thank you.”

Was there other history made in the Church this year? Of course there was. The Synod on Synodality continues on its massive scale interrogating our collective identity as Catholic Christians. Since February, the Christian nation of Ukraine has been under attack from Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Voluntary euthanasia is Canada’s seventh leading cause of death and growing as governments and the medical establishment work to expand their regime to the disabled, the mentally ill and those who cannot consent by reason of dementia.

Those stories are important, but reconciliation is what defines us. Reconciliation is what Christ accomplishes on the Cross. Reconciliation is what we participate in at the Eucharist. The real presence is the presence of reconciliation. There is no history without identity and if we are not identified with Christ, what are we? Mere memory is not enough. Anamnesis is the act of making what is truly real truly present. 

“Therefore, as we celebrate the memorial of His death and resurrection, we offer you, Lord, the Bread of life and the Chalice of salvation, giving thanks that you have held us worthy to be in your presence and minister to you.”

We have been called into the presence of God and to be present to one another. For this journalist, to be present in the midst of history this year has been my greatest privilege.

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