Calgary Bishop Emeritus Fred Henry. Canadian Catholic News

Without truth, there’s no reconciliation

  • March 8, 2024

Calgary’s emeritus Bishop Fred Henry has been named one of the world’s “Top 10 people of 2023” by Inside the Vatican magazine for challenging the consensus on graves at former Indian residential schools.

Henry was notified out of the blue in late February that he was featured on the cover along with Catholic luminaries such as Cardinal Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem who offered to be exchanged for Israeli hostages held by Hamas after its horrific Oct. 7 murder spree.

In a letter advising Henry of the recognition, the U.S.-based magazine’s founding editor Robert Moynihan praises the outspoken Calgary clergyman’s “courageous witness to truth that you have given in your life as shepherd of your flock, even in retirement….”

A one-page inside story recaps controversies Henry engaged during his long career, including criticizing then Prime Minister Paul Martin for failing to uphold Catholic teaching on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion. It quotes his memorable remark directed toward Martin: “If you’re not going to be a Catholic, then don’t call yourself a Catholic.”

The bulk of the article focuses on Henry’s Socratic gadfly approach of pointedly questioning the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Trudeau government for accepting without contest or context the media reporting of mass graves at Indian residential schools.

It cites a Catholic Register story on the Calgary bishop’s efforts including his demand to know: “Why is the Catholic Church not asking the federal government for proof that even one residential (school) child is actually missing in the sense that his or her parents didn’t know what happened to their child at the time of the child’s death?”

The article, however, goes beyond Henry’s specific contention and says research shows “that Catholic-run Indian residential schools were places of security, happiness and opportunity for the overwhelming majority of indigenous (sic) children who attended them.”

It’s a claim that raised concern for Noah MacDonald, a canon lawyer in the Archdiocese of Toronto and a member of Michipicoten First Nation, who expressed disappointment that Henry’s “years of ministry” appear to have been put at the service of Inside the Vatican’s attempts to fuel a culture war.

“His remarks were embellished to serve a divisive narrative pushed by Inside the Vatican magazine to attract traditionalist Catholics and market to them guided tours of the Vatican/Rome,” MacDonald told The Register.

He said it would have been “an inclusion worth celebrating” had Henry been recognized for his “notable championing of labour movements and civil liberties for protesters” over decades of ministry.

“Sadly, this is not the case as it was his protectionism in the face of truth and reconciliation that earned him this spot.”

MacDonald, who is part of a network of Indigenous Catholics across Canada who seek to hold the media to account for the impact of coverage on Indigenous issues, said he doesn’t know if Henry realizes the “harmful impact” of his recent campaign on those faithful within the Church. He added Henry’s current stance seems “at odds” with positions the emeritus bishop has taken in the past.

“It was under his episcopacy in the Diocese of Thunder Bay that the enculturated parish of Kitchitwa Kateri Anamewgamik was erected,” MacDonald said. “It is hoped that Bishop Henry comes to see how his recent rhetoric has hurt the community he served so dearly in the past.”

In an e-mail exchange with The Catholic Register, Henry acknowledged he prays “for the wisdom of Solomon” to “discern what needs to be done and how to proceed” on the path of Indigenous reconciliation. But he expressed the conviction that while “words of importance can hurt… they can also be the only life-saving thing to do.” Such words must come, he stressed, from facing facts together.

“No truth. No reconciliation,” he said.

In their separate communications with The Register, both Henry and MacDonald pointed to the good will and healing arising from Pope Francis’ penitential mission to Canada in July 2022 along with reconciliation initiatives at the parish, diocesan and national levels.

But Henry stressed that cannot set aside the stark need for fact-finding into the allegations of unmarked graves such as those said to have been discovered in May 2021 at the former Indian residential school in Kamloops, B.C.

“What are the facts? Until we see some evidence/proof, we are wandering around like a bunch of headless chickens… rather than walking and talking together. There has to be a fundamental commitment to discover the truth whatever it is. We as a family need to hold hands as we speak to one another with love and gratitude, searching and committing to build new roads, trails and pathways,” he said.

A necessary first step is resolving the claims from the Kamloops residential school, and that requires organizational as well as personal and individual involvement, he said. He called on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Assembly of First Nations to issue a joint statement of commitment to find the truth.

“Not my nor your truth, but the truth,” Henry said.

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