When error, abuse or crimes are committed, the perpetrator’s contrition and atonement are first steps and preconditions of any possible reconciliation. That’s true when harm is caused by individuals or institutions — even ones as vast and magisterial as the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, more than any of his predecessors, has grasped that. He showed so again this week in delivering a profound and moving apology to Indigenous Canadian peoples whose culture, communities and children were victimized by what he called an “evil committed by so many Christians.”
The pontiff’s in-person apology was perhaps too long in coming — at least three decades after reports surfaced of sexual, physical and emotional abuse suffered by children at church-run residential schools in Canada. Beyond the abuse — an act of “cultural genocide,” in the words of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which delivered its conclusions in 2015 — thousands of children died and were buried at the schools, usually in unmarked graves, amid circumstances often hidden from history.
Although the government founded and funded those schools, they were run by churches. Most were Catholic-operated, and their legacy of horror, over the course of a century starting in the 1880s, is a staggering testament to the collateral damage caused by forced assimilation with Canada’s dominant White European culture. The very purpose of the schools was to obliterate the linguistic and spiritual cornerstones of Indigenous communities, an act of long-lived brutality.
The pope acknowledged that history forthrightly, although not as completely as some Indigenous leaders might have wanted. For years, they have pushed for an apology not only for the role played by the Catholic orders that ran many of the schools — finally delivered earlier this year, when Indigenous leaders met with Francis at the Vatican — but also for the church’s own institutional complicity. Moreover, while the Canadian federal government has paid several billion dollars in reparations to former residential school students under a class-action lawsuit, and Protestant denominations chipped in millions more, the Catholic Church, which ran about two-thirds of the roughly 130 residential schools, has contributed a relative pittance.
Still, words are important, and the pope’s were largely on the mark when, in the first public appearance of his week-long trip to Canada on Monday, he spoke in a powwow circle at the site of a former Indian residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta. The school was founded by Catholic missionaries.
Addressing himself to “every Native community and person,” Francis expressed his “shame” and said he was “deeply sorry,” eliciting applause from Indigenous people in attendance. He asked forgiveness “for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
Just as important, he acknowledged that apologies are not sufficient, and said that he agreed that “concrete” actions would be required to achieve a full reconciliation. The onus therefore remains on the Vatican, in this papacy or the next, to make good on Francis’s words.
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