Pope Francis apologizes to Canada’s Indigenous communities for ‘deplorable conduct’

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ROME – Pope Francis apologized to Canada’s Indigenous communities on Friday, asking a delegation of three groups that came to the Vatican for forgiveness for the “deplorable conduct” of some members of the church who played a role in the many abuses committed against them.

“Listening to your voices, I was able to enter into and be deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, particularly in the residential schools,” Francis said. “It is chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots, and to consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become inter-generational traumas.”

Pope Francis welcomed representatives from three of Canada’s Indigenous peoples on Friday, after holding individual meetings with delegations of the Assembly of First Nations, the Metis, and Inuit communities.

The trip was years in the making but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the residential schools.

More than 150,000 native children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to assimilate Indigenous children. They were run by several Christian denominations on behalf of the government, and many were operated by the Catholic Church. 

Many of the children were subjected to abuse, rape and malnutrition in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called “cultural genocide.” The Commission also specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church’s role in the abuses against the Indigenous.

Hearing the testimonies this week, Francis said, caused two feelings for him: “indignation and shame.”

“Indignation, because it is unjust to accept evil, and it is even worse to get used to evil, as if it were an inescapable dynamic caused by the events of history,” he said. “No, without a firm indignation, without memory and without a commitment to learn from mistakes, problems are not solved and they come back. We see this in these days regarding the war. One must never sacrifice the memory of the past on the altar of a supposed progress.”

The shame, he said, comes from the role that “several Catholics,” particularly those with educational responsibilities, played in “all that has hurt you, in the abuses and disrespect towards your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All of this is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus.”

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church I ask God’s forgiveness and I would like to say to you from my heart: I am very sorry,” Francis said. 

The pontiff also said that it is evident that the contents of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way that is foreign to the faith itself: “Jesus taught us to welcome, to love, to serve and not to judge; it is terrible when, precisely in the name of faith, one renders a counter-testimony to the Gospel.”

A papal apology was among the requests made by the three communities during their visits with the pope, but they hope it will be issued in their own lands during a visit by Francis to Canada. The Vatican has said that the trip has been penciled in, but no date has yet been confirmed. 

However, the pope gave a possible window for a visit, something close to July 26, the feast of Saint Anna, Jesus’ grandmother. He said that “it gives me joy” to think about how the veneration of the Virgin Mary has spread among these communities. “This year I would like to be with you on those days,” he said.

The representatives of the First Nations, Metis, and Inuit also asked Francis to intervene so that the church hands them all the records held in Canada’s dioceses and in the archives of the Rome headquarters of the various religious orders active in Canada, so they can properly reconstruct this horrific time in their history. It is believed none of these documents are held in the Vatican. They also want to start a dialogue on the return of native artifacts held in the Vatican Museums.

During his remarks, Francis also praised the Indigenous for the way they care for the land, treating it not as a resource to be exploited but as a gift from heaven that preserves the memory of their ancestors, and for their ability to see each life as part of a “greater web of relationships, with the Creator, with the human community, with all living species and with the earth, our common home.”

The pontiff said their love for family and their sense of community, as well as the richness of their languages, cultures, traditions, and forms of art represent a patrimony that belongs not only to them, but to all of humanity. However, he added, the chain that passed on knowledge and ways of life “was broken by a colonization that lacked respect for you, tore many of you from your vital milieu and tried to conform you to another mentality.”

Great harm was done to their identity and culture, the pope said, acknowledging that many families were separated, and great numbers of children fell victim to these attempts to impose a uniformity based on the notion that progress occurs through ideological colonization, following programs “devised in offices rather than the desire to respect the life of peoples.”

Ideological colonization, he said, is something that is still happening today. Political, ideological, and economic colonization are driven by greed and thirst for profit, with little concern for peoples, their histories and traditions, and humanity’s common home.

“Sadly, this colonial mentality remains widespread,” he said. “Let us help each other, together, to overcome it.”

Phil Fontane, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who first spoke about the abuse he suffered in a residential school 30 years ago, told reporters after the meeting that Francis’s apology had gone “further” than what many expected. “I didn’t think he was going to say the words ‘I beg your pardon.'”

The group did say that they still want Francis to go to Canada, where he can renew his apologies to survivors and families.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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