Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Saturday (Jul 30, 2022). In this historic Canadian tour which he had named “a penitential pilgrimage,” he visited several regions apologizing for the Catholic Church’s role in the ethnic “genocide”—the abuse, violence, and racism that caused countless deaths—in the Canadian residential school system.
The residential school system was a network of boarding schools for Indigenous peoples in Canada. The system existed for over a hundred years between mid-1860s and the 1980s. It reached its peak in the 1900s–1960s. In the 1930s, about thirty percent of Indigenous children were attending residential schools. The number began to drop rapidly in the 1970s and the school system completely disappeared by the late 1990s. The Canadian government funded the residential school system, and it was managed by Christian churches (Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, United, and Presbyterian) to take Indigenous children away from the linguistic, cultural, and religious influence of their parents to assimilate them into the “better and more superior” Canadian culture. It was largely a Catholic-run system; they ran about seventy percent of those schools. Estimates suggest that around 150,000 Indigenous children went through the system, minimum 10,000 and maximum 50,000 of which never returned home to their parents. As of today, there are around 80,000 survivors living in Canada.
Several denominations have already issued a public apology in the 1980s and 1990s: the Anglican Church of Canada (1993); the Presbyterian Church of Canada (1994); the United Church of Canada (1986). I would like to call this Canadian papal visit, therefore, “historic” because it has finally brought the public apology of the Roman Catholic Church.
But the response of the Indigenous peoples is mixed.
Some are thankful and satisfied. Some, however, find the pontiff’s carefully crafted words to be lacking and hollow apologies and lip service. Murry Sinclair, the former Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair, for example, does not hide his disappointment saying that the Pope’s apology “fell far short of acknowledging the church’s responsibility for abuses at the schools.”
The Pope also showed the typical we-will-look-into-it-and-get-back-to-you-sooner-or-later response to dodge the imminent task because he suggested that a serious “investigation” (or search) be done to see what took place, which surprises many because the Catholic Church already has “‘thousands’ pages of documents naming clergy who committed abuse against Indigenous children forced to attend residential schools” (Stephanie Taylor, CTV Edmonton, 8:17 am EDT, July 29th). The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2008–15) had interviewed more than seven-thousand survivors and thoroughly documented “how thousands of children suffered abuse, neglect and malnourishment” (S. Taylor). It was a truthful apology, therefore, that was expected, not another call for another investigation.
So, I suppose that the pontiff had two paths before him as he was preparing to come to Canada. One was a path of true repentance; he could openly mention the details of the Truth and Reconciliation’s findings, admit that the Roman Catholic Church—both at the individual and the corporate levels—has committed atrocious sins of abuse, violence, arrogance, and murder, repent, and ask for forgiveness. The other path was that of political maneuvering; he would not mention the details of the investigations, repent and ask for forgiveness in broad and abstract terms, for example, “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.” I am afraid that the Pope chose the latter.
I wonder what made it so difficult for him to take the first path of true repentance. This was a ripe chance for the Catholic Church to wipe out the tears of the Indigenous people and be truly forgiven. Most of all, this was a wonderful chance for them to repent truly before God. While I am so thankful to him that he decided to come and visit the affected places himself even in his old age, I am saddened to see that the Roman Catholic Church’s “apology” is officially done and yet many are left wondering if the Church is really repentant.
Photo AP Photo by Eric Gay
- Indian and Northern Affairs Canada’s data (2011)
- Mansoor, Sanya. “The ‘Deplorable’ History Behind the Pope’s Apology to Canada’s Indigenous Communities,” Time, https://time.com/6200213/pope-apology-canada-history-indigenous-communities/.
- “Official Apology from the Anglican Church of Canada” (1993)
- “Official Apology from the Presbyterian Church of Canada” (1994)
- “Official Apology from the United Church of Canada” (1986)
- Taylor, Stephanie, “Translation Error behind Pope’s Call for ‘Investigation’ into Residential Schools,” CTV News, https://edmonton.ctvnews.ca/translation-error-behind-pope-s-call-for-investigation-into-residential-schools-organizers-1.6007147
- “Pope Francis’s ‘penitential’ journey through Canada,” Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2022/07/29/in-photos-pope-franciss-penitential-journey-through-canada.html
- “Residential Schools of Canada,” Religion and Public Life – Harvard Divinity School, https://rpl.hds.harvard.edu/religion-context/case-studies/violence-peace/residential-schools-canada.