No papal apology on residential schools undermines Pope John Paul II’s precedent

Article originally published in The Star

“I have come in order to assure you that the Church stands with you as you strive to enhance your development as native peoples.”

Those words were spoken by Pope John Paul II in 1987, on his second trip to Canada. Unlike his other visits in 1984 and 2002, his day in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. was modest and humble — a promise kept after weather impeded a visit to the small community three years earlier. He visited the Dene Nation homeland, speaking with national Indigenous leaders. Among many pledges and words of comfort, he said when it came to life and dignity, “Be assured that the Church will walk that path with you.”

Well, needless to point out, that shared path is missing a traveller. As has been well-documented in recent days, calls for the pontiff to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools have intensified after the discovery in Kamloops, B.C. And with the prospect of similar discoveries at other sites, one would think it better to beg for forgiveness sooner rather than later, as these crimes against the innocent come more and more into focus.

Our current governments’ actions on reconciliation are far more important than Vatican atonement, yet what does it say when a pope can find it in his heart to apologize to Latin Americans in Bolivia and the Irish in Dublin, but not here? Reflecting on this resistance, what is achieved through forced apology?

By all accounts, even with the dogged stubbornness to repent, it appears contrition would be welcomed. The calls aren’t tempering. Consider the words from then-National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Phil Fontaine after it took the government until 2010 to apologize in Parliament. “It is something that shows the righteousness and importance of our struggle,” said Fontaine.

The crimes committed, sanctioned and overseen by the church’s cloak can’t be apologized for enough, and even with John Paul II’s blanket apology to Jews, women, Indigenous populations and others in 2000, his critics have found plenty to account, as with all popes. But by visiting Canada three times in less than two decades, he at the least made this country a priority — with that specific spotlight on Indigenous lives in 1987.

Whatever beacon of light existed then has dimmed. Granted, Pope Francis has recently met with Canadian cardinals, and a delegation of Indigenous leaders is set to meet with him before the end of 2021. But if re-engagement for a Holy See apology is once again rebuffed, then perhaps Canada should take a page from Ireland 10 years ago when that country issued an unprecedented critique of the church’s treatment of its people. This eventually proved effective.

Send a message to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops that it should not bother with a papal invite for this or any successor who can’t be bothered to say sorry. Otherwise, that visit over 30 years ago truly was nothing more than symbolic.

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