Pope’s apology: an important step on the path to reconciliation

On Monday, the first full day of his pilgrimage to Canada, Pope Francis begged forgiveness of the Indigenous Peoples of Canada for the Church’s complicity “in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

By Christopher Wells – Edmonton

For more than a century, Indigenous children were compelled by the Canadian government to attend residential or day schools, separated from their loved ones and often far from their homes, precisely in order to discourage family visits. Children at residential schools were forbidden to speak their own languages or practice their own cultural traditions and were often subjected to physical, verbal, psychological, and sexual abuse.

Survivors speak of a systematic effort at cultural genocide

Last year, investigations at the sites of former residential schools revealed the possibility of mass graves in those locations, prompting a wave of indignation throughout the world and a renewed interest in the plight of Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Whatever the ultimate result of those investigations, the wounds and trauma inflicted upon Indigenous people and their communities by the residential schools lives on.

During Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage, many survivors of residential schools told their own stories and stories of their family members. The systemic wounds and inter-generational trauma continue to have an impact on their lives.

For many, the collaboration not only of individual Catholics but also of Church institutions in a system aimed at eliminating their identity as a people has left lasting scars. Although governments and churches have publicly asked for forgiveness for their treatment of indigenous peoples in the past, many indigenous had called for an apology from the Pope in the name of the whole Church.

Members of the indigenous community during meeting with Pope at Maskwacis

Members of the indigenous community during meeting with Pope at Maskwacis

Pope’s apology

While Popes have previously expressed sorrow and shame for the Church’s role in the oppression of indigenous peoples in Canada and elsewhere, calls continued for a clear, explicit apology by the Pope in person, and ideally on indigenous territory.

Pope Francis responded to that call with an apology to delegates of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples who met with him in Rome earlier this year. At that meeting, the Holy Father promised to visit Canada in person – a commitment he has now fulfilled.

In Maskwacis on Monday, more than two thousand survivors of residential schools were present, representative of all those who were forced to attend the residential schools as well as their families. During the meeting with the Pope, Indigenous people celebrated their linguistic, cultural, and spiritual heritage in coulourful indigenous dress, with dance and drumming and music, and in their own languages.

When Pope Francis once again apologized, clearly and unambiguously for the Church’s role in the residential schools, a cheer arose from the crowd, who had waited for years to hear his voice on their own lands. Afterwards, many expressed their gratitude to the Pope for his courage, humility, and faithfulness in keeping the promise he had made in Rome.

Pope and indigenous peoples at Maskwacis

On the path to healing

At the same time, Indigenous elders, chiefs, and spokespersons emphasized that all those affected by the residential school system and the legacy of colonialism would respond to the Pope’s apology in their own way, some, perhaps, with deep gratitude and appreciation, but others perhaps with anger and reopened wounds, or even indifference. They insisted that all responses were valid, as individuals processed their grief and trauma in their own ways.

Nonetheless, they were unified in recognising the historical significance of the Pope’s apology, while insisting that it is only a first – albeit important – first step in a process of reconciliation and healing.

They repeated, with one voice, their call for the Pope’s words to be followed with concrete actions – a call echoed by Pope Francis in his own remarks. “It is my hope that concrete ways can be found to make [indigenous] peoples better known and esteemed, so that all may learn to walk together.” He renewed his commitment to “continue to encourage the efforts of all Catholics to support the indigenous peoples.” At the same time, he acknowledged that the process of healing and reconciliation will take time and patience: “We are speaking of processes that must penetrate hearts.”   

A man at the meeting with the Pope at Maskwacis

A man at the meeting with the Pope at Maskwacis