What does a papal apology mean?

On Friday, Pope Francis, the supreme leader of the Catholic Church, received delegations of First Peoples from the country now known as Canada, and ended these encounters making an apology for the role the Roman Catholic Church played in the notorious and genocidal residential school system.

This moment had been outlined by the Survivors of the residential schools, in the Truth and Reconciliation Committee’s Recommendations, as an action needed to move forward.

Recommendation #58:

We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.

Survivors had to fight in a class-action lawsuit to have the abuse and breach of duty acknowledged. The landmark settlement in 2006 that funded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission also obliged the Catholic Church to pay reparations. (According to a recent piece from the New York Tmes, the Catholic Church operated about 70% of the 130+ schools, but have only paid $1.2 million in reparations.)

So. There is still a long way to go, before an apology is a genuine act of making amends, of mending and repairing what was damaged and impacted. The acknowledgement, after years of silence, denial and gaslighting, is a start.

“I feel shame … sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, and the abuses you suffered and the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.

For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”

Pope Francis

But all of this is, in some ways, a distraction and an abstraction, from what warrants our care and tending and attention right now. While many delegates danced in St Peters Square after the apology was made, it doesn’t feel exactly right to use the word celebration for this moment. I googled “what does the pope’s apology mean”, and there’s a lot of commentary already filling up the internet.

I suspect it means different things for different people. I suspect it triggers wave upon wave of big feelings. And hurt. I imagine every moment of relief is followed by a chaser of grief. Rage too. Legitimately. I imagine it is just one more step in a life-long, generations-deep journey of healing, for survivors, for First Nations, Metis and Inuit.

I would suggest, for those of us who didn’t endure attempted eradication, the kidnapping of our children, abuse, or the wilful disconnection from our lands, languages and cultures, who weren’t dehumanised by official government policy, that I think it’s a call to keep on working, to understand that reconciliation isn’t done, and to ponder: how can I contribute to making that healing path less obstacle-strewn, less hazardous, less painful. Can I do something so that people can dance through that journey, instead of crawling?

Because, if nothing else has been clear to me, over the past few days watching the online and social updates, it’s that when the people dance, beauty returns to the world, and we are returning to beauty, the beauty that was everyone’s birthright.

<blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”><p lang=”en” dir=”ltr”>Dr Wilton Littlechild, who has advocated for years 4 the Catholic Church to apologize; was a TRC Commissioner, he’s a survivor of residential schools and now uses a walker-it’s his 78th bday today. He danced in St Peters Square celebrating <a href=”https://twitter.com/Pontifex?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Pontifex</a&gt; apology which is momentous <a href=”https://t.co/8al4YDELAU”>pic.twitter.com/8al4YDELAU</a></p>&mdash; Brandi Morin (@Songstress28) <a href=”https://twitter.com/Songstress28/status/1509883431789993986?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>April 1, 2022</a></blockquote> <script async src=”https://platform.twitter.com/widgets.js&#8221; charset=”utf-8″></script>

The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line (1-800-721-0066) is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of their residential school experience.

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