Openness to grace makes reconciliation possible

  • March 30, 2011
Michael O’Brien, the leading Catholic novelist in the English language, has sent millions of words into print. He has painted numerous sacred images which tell their own stories, pictures being worth thousands of words. Yet the words he spoke on March 28 at Saint Paul University in Ottawa had an uncommon power, for they were a personal testimonial of grace.

“I am proud to say that I am a Roman Catholic. It is beautiful, beautiful, beautiful that we have a Saviour who dwells with us in this magnificent Church. This is our home. The Church is full of Judases, but it is overwhelmingly full of saints.”

Regarding the Judases, O’Brien knows of what he speaks. The artist was speaking as part of a panel organized by the Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal, Canada’s leading Christian think tank, and Conversations Cultural Centre, a project of the Catholic movement Communion and Liberation. The panel addressed the Indian residential school system under the title, “From Darkness of Heart to a Heart of Forgiveness.” The evening was sombre, with the weight of sin clearly felt, and also hopeful, with the liberation wrought by mercy also evident.

As part of the federal government apology to native Canadians for the residential schools experience, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has been set up and has begun its work, taking testimony from former students across Canada. As difficult as it is to tell the truth about painful things, reconciliation is yet another step, more difficult still. Reconciliation requires the truth to be told, but telling the truth is not sufficient for reconciliation.

The panel at Saint Paul opened a window on what reconciliation looks like in the experience of three victims — O’Brien, and two native Canadian leaders, David Frank and Garnet Angeconeb.

“If you have love in your heart, you have no enemies,” said Frank, who was sexually abused by a priest in a residential school. That was the lesson his parents taught him, but the trauma he suffered as a boy drove love from his heart. Destroyed by the experience, he gave himself over to alcohol and drug addictions.

“I lived a life of a ‘dead God,’ ” he said. “God wasn’t there when I needed Him.”

His faith destroyed, his life a torment, his family disintegrating, Frank attempted suicide three times. On the third attempt, his suicide note written and a plan in place, he was interrupted by an unexpected knock at the door. It was a priest, coming to visit him. The priest came in and listened to Frank tell his story. It was an experience of love at a critical point.

“That priest rescued me,” said Frank. One priest was able to help heal the wounds inflicted by another priest.

Angeconeb was also sexually abused as a residential school student. He later met his abuser, but was met with total denial. Later he wanted to meet his abuser again, desiring him to admit the truth as the first step to reconciliation. But the abuser had already died.

“How do you forgive a man who has died?” Angeconeb asked. Later he was able to do so in his heart, if not face to face.

The three testimonies demonstrated that forgiveness and reconciliation is not easy, nor is it quick. If there is a lack of contrition, or if time and death makes that impossible, reconciliation remains imperfect. Most victims do not experience reconciliation at all.

O’Brien’s testimony revealed that the betrayal went beyond the lay dormitory supervisor, Martin Houston, at Grollier Hall, a residential school in Inuvik where O’Brien was a non-native student. While not sexually abused, O’Brien endured along with those who were in a reign of terror, marked by arbitrary cruelty and psychological and physical violence. Houston was convicted in the early 1960s of multiple counts of sexual abuse of teenage boys, and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Released after nine years, he sought admission to a seminary, and after a few rejections, was accepted by the archdiocese of St. Boniface in Manitoba and ordained a priest by the late Archbishop Antoine Hacault.

Archbishop Hacault is now dead and so cannot explain his horrifying decision. But perhaps O’Brien’s dramatic phrase is sufficient. Bishops are successors of the apostles and in their midst Judas still betrays the Lord Jesus.

The truth needs to be told. The three courageous witnesses have the courage to tell it. Beyond courage they possess the largeness of heart and the openness to grace which makes reconciliation possible. Let the government’s commission do its work. And let the Church follow these men on the path of mercy.

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