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ROME – Pope Francis Thursday asked forgiveness for the sexual abuse of children at church-run residential schools and vowed “never again,” building on an earlier historic apology made the day after his arrival in Canada.
At an evening Vespers service in the Quebec Cathedral of Notre Dame with bishops, priests, and nuns, the pope reflected on the challenges they face in being credible witnesses to the Gospel. “The church in Canada has set out on a new path, after being hurt and devastated by the evil perpetrated by some of its sons and daughters.”
“I think in particular of the sexual abuse of minors and vulnerable people, scandals that require firm action and an irreversible commitment. Together with you, I would like once more to ask forgiveness of all the victims,” he said.
“The pain and the shame we feel must become an occasion for conversion: Never again!” he said.
Pointing to the ongoing path of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous communities, given the various abuses they endured in Canada’s residential school system, Francis said, “Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others, or that it is legitimate to employ ways of coercing others.”
He invoked the example of Saint François de Laval, the first bishop of Quebec, who “railed against those who demeaned the Indigenous people by inducing them to imbibe strong drink in order then to cheat them.”
“Let us not allow any ideology to alienate or mislead the customs and ways of life of our peoples, as a means of subduing them or controlling them,” the pope said.
Francis’s apology Thursday marked the first time he explicitly mentioned the sexual abuse of children at the residential schools, where some 150,000 children were brought between 1870 and 1996 after being forcibly removed from their families.
In a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation commission termed a “cultural genocide,” children were often beaten for speaking their native languages and suffered various forms of physical, psychological, sexual, and spiritual abuse.
The pope’s plea for forgiveness Thursday built on an historic apology he made Monday during a meeting with members of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities on the grounds of the former Ermineskin residential school in Maskwacis, Alberta.
On that occasion, the pope said he was “deeply sorry” for the ways in which Christians “supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples.” Calling the schools a “disastrous error” and a “deplorable evil,” he said the concept of the schools and efforts at assimilation were “incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
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Earlier Thursday, he reiterated his apology during a Mass at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré: “In confronting the scandal of evil and the Body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure.”
“Why did all this happen? How could this happen in the community of those who follow Jesus?” he asked.
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However, despite the pope’s repeated apologies since arriving in Canada July 24, some Indigenous have taken issue with the fact that sexual abuse had not specifically been mentioned, nor has the pope rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery, backing the colonization of the Americas, and the papal bulls associated with it.
In his speech to Canada’s bishops and clergy, the pope spoke of the need to minister with joy and reflected at length on the secularization of the modern world, which he said is something that must be discerned, rather than seen as an “attack” to be fought back against.
Drawing a distinction between secularization and “secularism,” he said secularization in itself, while “relegating God, as it were, to the background,” is “in itself just and legitimate and in no way incompatible with faith or religion,” whereas secularism “totally separates a link with the Creator,” making God “superfluous.”
“As church, and above all as shepherds of God’s People and as pastoral workers, it is up to us to make these distinctions, to make this discernment,” he said.
If the church yields to a negative view of secularization and judges matters “superficially, we risk sending the wrong message, as though the criticism of secularization masks on our part the nostalgia for a sacralized world, a bygone society in which the church and her ministers had greater power and social relevance.”
“This is a mistaken way of seeing things,” he said, saying the real problem Christians ought to have with secularization is not the church’s diminished relevance or the loss of wealth and privilege, but rather that it demands a deeper reflection “on the changes in society that have influenced the way in which people think about and organize their lives.”
With this reflection, “we come to realize that what is in crisis is not the faith, but some of the forms and ways in which we present it,” he said, and challenged the church’s pastors to develop a more creative “pastoral imagination.”
“A discerning view, while acknowledging the difficulties we face in communicating the joy of the faith, motivates us to develop a new passion for evangelization, to look for new languages and forms of expression, to change certain pastoral priorities and to focus on the essentials,” he said.
For this discernment to be effective, Pope Francis said, it is necessary to return to the basics of the Gospels and of Scripture.
“We cannot presume to communicate the joy of faith by presenting secondary aspects to those who have not yet embraced the Lord in their lives, or by simply repeating certain practices or replicating older forms of pastoral work,” he said, and stressed the need to find new ways to proclaim the Gospel.
This, he said, is something that requires “pastoral creativity” in meeting people where they are at, and finding opportunities for dialogue and encounter.
He also underlined the importance of fraternity, saying the church will be more credible to the extent that “its members embody communion.”
“Let us ask ourselves: how are we doing when it comes to practical fraternity between us? Bishops among themselves and with their priests, priests among themselves and with the People of God. Are we brothers, or competitors split into parties?” he said.
Francis also asked bishops about their relationship with those who do not believe or who have different traditions and customs, saying true fraternity means building relationships “with everyone, with indigenous brothers and sisters, with every sister and brother we meet.”
“Let us not allow the spirit of secularism to enter our midst, thinking that we can create plans that work automatically, and by human effort alone, apart from God. And, please, let us not close ourselves off by looking back, but press forward, with joy!” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen