Vatican News’ Editorial Director takes a look at Pope Francis’ actions and words on the first day of his Apostolic Visit to Canada and his meeting with indigenous peoples.
It was the first appointment of the trip: The heart of his message, and the reasons that brought him all the way here, were contained in the first words spoken by Pope Francis on Canadian soil, despite his ongoing walking problems.
After praying silently in the cemetery of the indigenous peoples of Maskwacis, in the Church of Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, the Pope spoke in the Bear Park Pow-Wow Grounds, before a delegation of indigenous leaders from all over the country.
“I am here,” he said, “because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. 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 promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
These were schools established and financed by the government, but many of them were run by Christian churches. Thousands of children, torn from their families, suffered ‘physical and verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse’ in them. Many found death due to poor hygiene and disease.
There is an unequivocal judgement in the words of the Bishop of Rome, welcomed by the indigenous peoples who waited so long for him: “What the Christian faith tells us is that this was a devastating error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Even at the time of colonialism, as well as later, when the colonial mindset continued to influence policies and attitudes of which residential schools were an example, it was possible to understand what the Gospel way was. Even at that time, despite historical and cultural conditioning, it was possible to discern, to understand that the traditions of the indigenous people were to be welcomed, not annihilated; that the faith was to be proposed within the different indigenous cultures and not imposed by destroying them.
The violence for which Christians have been responsible throughout the centuries has already been judged by the testimony of Jesus, who taught love not hate, and remained helpless on the cross as an innocent victim, sharing the pain of all the victims of history.
Even at the time when cultural destruction and assimilation were committed, a different attitude was possible: just think of the ancient examples of evangelisation that respected the indigenous cultures, witnessed by the ‘reducciones‘ in Paraguay or the attitude of Father Matteo Ricci in China.
As the Pope shows us, this is why it is right to ask for forgiveness, and to do so with an attitude of humility and listening, in the awareness that there are wounds that cannot be healed by centuries, as the words of the indigenous peoples of Canada demonstrate.
Of course, it would be a mistake not to also look at the good that so many missionaries have silently accomplished over the centuries in these lands. But the only true Christian response to what has happened is not one of distinctiveness or historical analysis. Faced with those who claim to still carry within them the pain of what happened, those who lost loved ones without even knowing where they were buried, one can only remain silent, praying, listening, embracing and asking for forgiveness. As the elderly Pontiff in the wheelchair is teaching us.
“I recall the meetings we had in Rome four months ago,” said the Pope. “At that time, I was given two pairs of moccasins as a sign of the suffering endured by indigenous children, particularly those who, unfortunately, never came back from the residential schools. I was asked to return the moccasins when I came to Canada, and I will do so at the end of these few words, in which I would like to reflect on this symbol, which over the past few months has kept alive my sense of sorrow, indignation and shame. The memory of those children is indeed painful; it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect.”
“These are traumas that are in some way reawakened whenever the subject comes up,” added Pope Francis. “I realize too that our meeting today can bring back old memories and hurts, and that many of you may feel uncomfortable even as I speak. Yet it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, ‘the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference… and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference’ (E. WIESEL).”
Remembering the devastating experiences in residential schools is shocking, indignant, painful, but necessary.
With thanks to Vatican News and Andrea Tornielli, where this article originally appeared.