Pope Francis is pictured with Canadian Indigenous delegates from the Métis National Council and bishops representing the Canadian bishops’ conference during a meeting at the Vatican March 28. CNS photo/Vatican Media

Apology but one step toward reconciliation

  • April 7, 2022

At the conclusion of the Lenten journey of Indigenous representatives to the Vatican, Pope Francis gave the delegation a laetare moment, a time to rejoice. The Pope’s poignant apology for the harm “members of the Catholic Church” did to Indigenous children in residential schools and his promise to visit Canada this summer is a major step toward healing a broken relationship.

The apology at Rome comes amid a $30-million national campaign to raise funds for healing programs for the survivors and families of former students at the schools. I was heartened to at last add our family’s donation to the $3 million our Edmonton Archdiocese has pledged to the campaign. A personal donation is a personal commitment — beyond the corporate commitment — to reconciliation.

The laetare moment came as Catholics make our way to the Cross and Resurrection, the Paschal celebration of salvation through Christ. Where is the Church on this pilgrimage? Is she still in the midst of her crucifixion which began with the revelation of widespread, systemic abuse at the Mount Cashel Orphanage 33 years ago, and which has continued through the pulling back of the veil that had covered the violence of the residential schools? Or is Resurrection in sight?

The Cross and Resurrection are inseparable. But have we yet reached the point where in the Eucharistic Prayer, we pray that Christ “entered willingly into his Passion”? My sense is we have far to go before our participation in the Cross is “willing.”

Some disturbing images came from the visit — the formal photos of an imposing wall of bishops dressed in black to the Pope’s right and various groups of Indigenous men and women arrayed in a variety of traditional dress to his left. The photos spoke of the Church as power and the Indigenous people as spontaneity and spirit. If I had been in those photos, I know where I would have wanted to stand.

This is the way bishops dress when they meet the pope. But we ought to be more aware of the image our clothing presents when we gather for dialogue among equals.

For 1,500 years, the Church was part of the power structure of empire. Only in modern times has “the world” gradually pushed her aside as the State and corporations became the overwhelming sources of power.

Church participation in residential schools arose mainly out of a sincere desire to spread the Gospel. Yet, that desire was often carried out in ways contrary to the Gospel, Pope Francis said. The “deplorable conduct” of Catholics included “the abuses you suffered and … the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”

Families were destroyed, many students were physically or sexually abused, and more than 4,000 children died in residential schools.

Our Church is now widely held in disrepute. She is seen, not as the dispenser of God’s love and mercy, but as a repressive institution that witnesses to a God of fierce judgment. That is a caricature, but it is a caricature which had truth during the time of residential schools.

So we have taken positive steps.

Nevertheless, if we are to err in how we present ourselves publicly, we ought to err on the side of self-abnegation rather than on that of defensiveness and (God forbid!) triumphalism. If we must boast, we will boast of our weakness. Apology is good for the soul and to apologize many times is even better. My sin is always before me.

History teaches that the Church is holiest when she is being persecuted and ground to a pulp. This slight momentary affliction prepares us for an eternal weight of glory beyond measure. What appears to be decline may well be progress.

Our fallen nature loathes times of Passion. Fallen human beings seek power because they fail to believe Jesus is Lord. We lurch to defend ourselves when our reputation is tarnished. But if for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

We have begun our metanoia, our turning away from an ethic of power. What are we turning toward? Holiness, I pray. Pope Francis’ apology offers the promise that Resurrection will come through walking with the Indigenous people whom the empire had dispossessed. When we are clear that our mission lies on society’s margins and that our disrepute should be welcomed as God’s gift, we will enter more fully into the Gospel.

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