Pope Francis is old at 85, hurting with a knee injury that requires use of a wheelchair, and has already canceled two foreign pilgrimages this summer. He is, however, spending a week in Canada because the country is hurting, as is the Catholic Church.
He is making a “penitential journey” to address what has become a shame for both church and state, the longtime (1881-1996) shame in which 150,000 children were removed from their native villages and deposited in residential schools. The kids were beaten for speaking their native languages, subject to sexual abuse, with an estimated 6,000 succumbing to disease and despair, with others running away. Two thirds of the schools were run by Roman Catholic religious orders.
The Papal journey began Monday in a cemetery at Maskwacis, a remote locale in Alberta, where Francis prayed and then headed for a ceremony of drums and a parade of Indigenous chiefs and elders. Although sitting in a wheelchair, it was the Pope who walked humbly before his Aboriginal First Nations hosts.
The separation of kids from culture was “catastrophic,” he told them, aimed at the “cultural destruction of Indigenous peoples.” “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” said Francis, speaking at the site of what was once one of the largest residential schools in the country.
“I am so sorry,” he added. “I ask forgiveness, in particular, 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 permitted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
With his statements, the Pope answered a 2015 recommendation by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called for accountability and apology for the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children from Catholic-run residential schools.” An apology for the Canadian government was delivered by then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a Conservative from Alberta. “The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history,” Harper told parliament. “Today we recognize that this policy of assimilation was wrong, caused great harm, and has no place in our country.”
Two years ago, there came a further discovery, in British Columbia, that seared Canada’s national consciousness. The Kamloops Indian Residential School operated just outside the British Columbia city from 1881 to 1969, when it was taken over from the Church by the Canadian government and turned into a day school. The building still stands. In June of 2021, anthropologist Sarah Bealieu surveyed the grounds with ground-penetrating radar, which detected the presence of an estimated 205 unmarked graves.
Assimilation was advertised as a strategy for bringing culture and faith to “uncivilized” children from isolated native villages. It was widely accepted, school administrators were honored, priests and nuns posed with classes of newly scrubbed pupils. In remarks Monday, Francis noted the reality of cultural genocide. “What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” said the pontiff. “It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identities of your peoples was erased, and that you have continued to pay the price for this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores His forgiveness for the sins of her children.”
Witnessing his remarks was Canada’s Governor General Mary Simon, an Inuk born in northern Quebec and the first Indigenous person to hold the post as Queen Elizabeth’s ceremonial chief of state in Canada.
Pope Francis has sought to redirect his church from its triumphalism and self-protection.. He has issued blunt messages on the climate emergency and quoted Gospels to decry the world’s economic stratification and mistreatment of refugees.
Francis, the first Jesuit pope, has been a refreshing presence to much of the world. But there has been blowback by defenders of the old order. The California Legislature last year passed a resolution to remove a statue of the early Franciscan missionary, St. Junipero Serra, from state capitol grounds and replace it with one honoring California’s Indigenous peoples. The resolution said missionaries shared responsibility for massacres and cultural assimilation.
Two ultraconservative Catholic bishops fired back. “Cancel culture is cancelling Western Civilization,” Tweeted San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone. Cordileone and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez defended Serra, writing: “The destruction of the state’s native people happened long after he was gone and many missions had been taken over by the government.”
Francis has grappled with how to treat good works as well as horrors in treatment of Indigenous peoples. In Alberta on Monday, he noted: “Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic.”
The frail Pope is spending five days in Canada, a trip that is also taking him to the Arctic and to a traditional stop at the shrine to St. Anne de Beaupre in Quebec. The pontiff undertook a more traditional event Tuesday, outdoor mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium. About 40,000 people showed up in sweltering heat at the 65,000-seat stadium to hear him. But much of the service was in Latin, a language not spoken by Canada’s First Nations peoples.
The Pope offered no further apologies or regrets but used his homily to commit the Church to “a future in which the history of violence and marginalization of our Indigenous brothers and sisters is never repeated.” He otherwise delivered a very traditional message in praise of parents and grandparents, the “treasure of elders.”
Many survivors of residential schools waited years to hear the message Francis delivered on Monday. It took “a lot of courage and humility” for Francis to make his penitential journey, in the words of Phil Fontaine, former national Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. The stadium crowd stood when Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith turned to Francis with thanks for the “enormous personal effort you have made to be with us.”
But Canada still has healing to do. “This is enormous and we have to take full advantage of it,” Fontaine told Global News, speaking of the pope’s journey. “It will be a real mistake of monumental proportions if we were to think that the apology was the end of the story, and not the beginning.”