“[Pope Francis] and the Vatican are referring to this as a ‘pilgrimage of penance,’” Father Dave says, “with his primary purpose being to apologize to Canadian citizens, Canadian Catholics and principally those of the First Nations because of the role the Catholic Church played, along with the Canadian government, in what they refer to as residential schools.”
In these schools, children of Native American tribes were separated from their families with the intention to assimilate them into Canadian society and “essentially lose their cultural heritage from their Native American upbringing.” Father Dave notes the many horrifying stories from survivors of these schools, including physical and sexual abuse. However, they note that the worst atrocity was being separated from their families.
Father Dave attributes the schools to “the very unhealthy ways in which, in so many different places in the world for centuries, imperialism and colonialism were so intertwined with evangelization.” This differs from our modern interpretation of spreading the Gospel, in which Saint John Paul II says in his encyclical Redemptoris Missio that, “The Church proposes; she imposes nothing.”
Pope Francis began his trip to Canada by meeting with Indigineous Peoples and apologizing, which breaks standard protocol of first meeting with local church and government leaders.
In an interview on CNN, Father Dave says, “I can’t think of another trip that was dedicated specifically for the purpose of an apology…it does signal a lot of other ways in which the Church wants to be humble and merciful to people and indicate that we are listening.” He also notes that this apology is just the first step towards “genuine healing and reconciliation,” and while it cannot end there, the words of apology must come first.
“[Part of] the problem is that for so many centuries we thought it would be a scandal to point to what went wrong, when in fact in the modern era we realize that it’s much more scandalous to not acknowledge it,” Father Dave says. In a situation with no easy answers, Pope Francis and the Church look to start from a place of “mercy, reconciling, and healing.”