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Pope, in Canada, rues ‘disastrous error’ of residential schools

July 25, 2022

Pope Francis apologized for the role of the Catholic Church in Canada’s “residential schools” for native children, on the first day of public activities in what the Pontiff has characterized as a “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada.

The Pope’s visit to Canada this week is a response to demands for an apology from the Vatican, and the papal schedule for the week-long voyage is dominated by meetings with representatives of the indigenous peoples whose children were assigned to the residential schools.

Although a few Canadian elected officials, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, were on hand to greet the papal plane when he arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, the Pope made his purpose clear immediately, kissing the hand of a tribal elder, Alam Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nations, who was a student at one of the residential schools.

Rather than beginning his formal program with courtesy calls on government leaders, as is typical of papal visits abroad, Pope Francis spent Monday, the first day of public activities, in meetings with indigenous peoples. At a park north of Edmonton, he proclaimed that the residential schools, where young natives were encouraged to discard their tribal customs, represented a “disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

The Pope apologized for “the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples.” He lamented that Christians had “cooperated… in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of the residential schools.”

In that statement the Pope accurately noted that it was the government, not the Catholic Church, that established the residential schools. Many of the schools were administered by Catholic religious orders, who took on the project of educating the indigenous children as a charitable venture, with the religious themselves often suffering as a result of the inadequate funding that led to disease, inadequate nutrition, and in some cases mass graves for children who succumbed to disease.

Nevertheless the leaders of indigenous groups have demanded a personal apology from the Pontiff, and Prime Minister Trudeau traveled to Rome to urge Pope Francis to make the gesture.

Some tribal leaders have praised and thanked the Pontiff for his visit, and at the July 25 meeting outside Edmonton, Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild acknowledged the “great personal effort” that the Pope has made, traveling to Canada despite the knee problems that have confined him to a wheelchair for much of the trip.

However, other indigenous leaders insist that they expect more than apologetic words from the Pope, and demanded financial settlements from the Holy See. In what could be a frequent occurrence, parishioners at a Catholic archdiocese in Ottawa in demanded that the proceeds from the sale of a closed church building should go to a fund for the “survivors” of residential schools.

Perhaps more important, the atmosphere surrounding the Pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” has fed complaints that the arrival of Christianity in Canada represented a disaster for the natives, rather than a triumph of Christian evangelization. Cardinal Michael Czerny, the prefect of the Vatican’s Dicastery for Integral Human Development, recalled that Pope Francis has explicitly rejected the notion that Christianity requires the adoption of European culture. Cardinal Czerny told the Associated Press:

If this conviction had been accepted by everyone involved in the centuries after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, much suffering would have been avoided, great developments would have occurred and the Americas would be all-around better.

No doubt prompted by that thought, an Associated Press story on the Pope’s trip carried the headline: “Pope’s Indigenous tour signals a rethink of mission legacy.”

 


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  • Posted by: feedback - Jul. 26, 2022 4:03 AM ET USA

    This "papal apology" distorts historical facts and redirects the blame. The actual evil was in forcing families to separate, which order came from the civil government. The Church gave the children the best she could in that dramatic situation. If Francis has the urge to apologize, he should do it first for the suffering Catholics in China, where his fault is personal and direct.