ROME – Pope Francis expressed closeness to all Canadian people traumatized by the shocking discovery of the remains of 215 children in the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canada’s largest indigenous boarding school.
Though he spoke of pain and suffering, the pontiff avoided apologizing.
“I follow with sorrow the news coming from Canada,” Francis said at the end of his Sunday Angelus prayer from the balcony in the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square. “I join the Canadian bishops and the entire Catholic Church in Canada in expressing my sympathy to the Canadian people, who have been traumatized by the shocking news.”
The pontiff said that the “sad discovery” further heightens “our awareness of the pain and suffering of the past,” urging Canada’s political and religious authorities to continue to work together with determination to shed light on this event and to “commit themselves humbly to a path of reconciliation and healing.”
Francis also said that the difficult times posed by the discovery of the remains in the Canadian State of British Columbia represent a strong call to “turn away from the colonizing model,” which also applies to what he called today’s “ideological colonization.”
The pope closed his appeal calling for dialogue, respect and recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the peoples of Canada, and leading those in the square in a silent prayer for the souls of the children who have died in the residential schools and the grief-stricken native Canadian families and communities.
The school opened in 1890 and was run by Catholics and the Canadian federal government. The federal government took over administration in 1969 and ran it as a residential building for students at day schools. It was closed in 1978.
Since the discovery of the remains was reported on May 30, there has been mounting pressure for the Catholic Church in Canada, and also the Vatican, to publicly and officially apologized for the crimes perpetrated in this and other residential schools across the country.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 boarding schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations. They were state-funded Christian institutions that aimed in assimilating indigenous children into Canadian society. The State has acknowledged that sexual and physical abuse were both a reality in many of these centers, where children were beaten for speaking in their own language.
The tragedy of missing children, unmarked graves, and residential school cemeteries was documented by the National Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2013, that produced a final report that suggested several measures be taken, including a formal apology by the Holy See.
The remains at the Kamloops Indian Residential School were found by using ground-penetrating radar, but they have yet to be excavated to be properly identified.
On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he was deeply disappointed that the Vatican hadn’t offered an apology, and called on the church to take responsibility: “As a Catholic, I am deeply disappointed by the position that the Catholic Church has taken now and over the past many years.”
“When I went to the Vatican a number of years ago I directly asked His Holiness, Pope Francis, to move forward on apologizing, on asking for forgiveness, on restitution, on making these records available, and we’re still seeing resistance from the church, possibly from the church in Canada.”
But Trudeau said the church is “silent” and “not stepping up.”
“It’s not showing the leadership that quite frankly is supposed to be at the core of our faith, of forgiveness, of responsibility, of acknowledging truth,” he said.
Many bishops have spoken up and released statements. In 2018, the Canadian bishops did say that the pope could not personally apologize for what had happened in residential schools. The United, Presbyterian and Anglican churches already have apologized for their roles in the abuse, as has the Canadian government, which has offered compensation.
Among the bishops who have apologized in recent days is the Archbishop of Vancouver, who spoke out on Wednesday, three days after the recovery of the remains was reported.
“I am writing to express my deep apology and profound condolences to the families and communities that have been devastated by this horrific news,” Archbishop Michael Miller tweeted. “The Church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.”
Bishop Thomas Dowd of the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie released a statement saying that the deaths discovered are awful, but the total erasure is appalling: “the fact of the deaths at the residential school was bad enough, but even worse was the lack of respect paid to those who died. Honestly, why on earth would ground penetrating radar have to be used to locate the remains of these children? The dead are not meant to be anonymous, or forgotten.”
He also offered his “sincere apology” to all the indigenous people of Canada, and in particular of his diocese, “whose culture and heritage I am now discovering.”
“Honestly, I am not sure what that apology is worth, given that I am only one man and only recently arrived here, but no matter what you have my pledge to learn from you, to listen to you, and to walk with you,” Dowd wrote.
Though never when addressing Canada in particular, Pope Francis has apologized to indigenous communities in general for the crimes committed by the Catholic Church. For instance, he did so during his trip to Colombia in 2015, when he asked for forgiveness for the sins, offences and crimes committed by the Catholic Church against indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.
“I also want for us to remember the thousands and thousands of priests who strongly opposed the logic of the sword with the power of the cross. There was sin, and it was plentiful. But we never apologized, so I now ask for forgiveness. But where there was sin, and there was plenty of sin, there was also an abundant grace increased by the men who defended indigenous peoples.”
When he was in Ireland in 2018, Francis also issued an apology for the “crimes” of the Catholic Church in this country, saying church officials didn’t respond with compassion, truth or justice to the many children and women who were abused over generations.
At the start of Mass in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, the Argentine pope read an apology that was a response to the tens of thousands of Irish children sexually and physically abused at Catholic Churches, schools and workhouses, and the women who were forced to live and work in laundries and give up their children if they got pregnant out of wedlock.
“We ask forgiveness for those members of the hierarchy who didn’t take responsibility for this painful situation, and who kept silence,” Francis said. “May the Lord keep this state of shame and compunction and give us strength so this never happens again, and that there is justice.”
Hundreds of miles away, in the Irish town of Tuam, a few hundred protesters recited the names of a 796 babies and young children who died at a Catholic-run orphanage there, most during the 1950s. The children were buried in a mass grave in a septic area of the grounds.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma