VATICAN CITY >> Pope Francis on Friday made a historic apology to Indigenous peoples for the “deplorable” abuses they suffered in Canada’s Catholic-run residential schools and said he hoped to visit Canada in late July to deliver the apology in person to survivors of the church’s misguided missionary zeal.
Francis begged forgiveness during an audience with dozens of members of the Metis, Inuit and First Nations communities who came to Rome seeking a papal apology and a commitment from the Catholic Church to repair the damage. The first pope from the Americas said he hoped to visit Canada around the Feast of St. Anna, which falls on July 26.
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 isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, with students beaten for speaking their native languages. That legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction now on Canadian reservations.
After hearing their stories all week, Francis told the Indigenous groups that the colonial project ripped children from their families, cutting off their roots, traditions and culture and provoking inter-generational trauma that is still being felt today. He said it was a “counter-witness” to the same Gospel that the residential school system purported to uphold.
“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” Francis said. “And I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”
The trip to Rome by the Indigenous leaders, elders and survivors was years in the making but gained momentum last year after the discovery of hundreds of unmarked graves outside some of the residential schools in Canada. The three groups met separately with Francis over several hours this week, telling him their stories, culminating with Friday’s audience.
The president of the Metis National Council, Cassidy Caron, said the Metis elder sitting next her burst into tears upon hearing what she said was a long-overdue apology.
“The pope’s words today were historic, to be sure. They were necessary, and I appreciate them deeply,” Caron told reporters in St. Peter’s Square. “And I now look forward to the pope’s visit to Canada, where he can offer those sincere words of apology directly to our survivors and their families, whose acceptance and healing ultimately matters most.”
First Nations’ Chief Gerald Antoine echoed the sentiment, saying Francis recognized the cultural “genocide” that had been inflicted on Indigenous peoples.
“Today is a day that we’ve been waiting for. And certainly one that will be uplifted in our history,” he said. “It’s a historical first step, however, only a first step.”
He and other delegates said there was far more for the church to do on the path of reconciliation, but that for now Indigenous leaders insisted on being involved in organizing the papal visit to make sure Francis stops in places that hold spiritual importance to their people.
Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, thanked Francis for addressing all the issues the Indigenous delegations had brought to him. “And he did so in a way that really showed his empathy towards the Indigenous people of Canada,” he said.
Nearly three-quarters of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary congregations.
Last May, the Tk’emlups te Secwepemc Nation announced the discovery of 215 gravesites near Kamloops, British Columbia, that were found using ground-penetrating radar. It was Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school and the discovery of the graves was the first of numerous, similar grim sites across the country.
Even before the grave sites were discovered, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil for the church’s role in the abuses.
In addition, as part of a settlement of a lawsuit involving the Canadian government, churches and the approximately 90,000 surviving students, Canada paid reparations that amounted to billions of dollars being transferred to Indigenous communities. The Catholic Church, for its part, has paid over $50 million and now intends to add $30 million more over the next five years.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, meanwhile, acknowledged Francis’ apology and said he looked forward to having him deliver it in person in Canada.
“This apology would not have happened without the long advocacy of survivors who journeyed to tell their truths directly to the institution responsible and who recounted and relived their painful memories,” he said. “Today’s apology is a step forward in acknowledging the truth of our past in order to right historical wrongs, but there is still work to be done.”
Francis said he felt shame for the role that Catholic educators had played in the harm, “in the abuse and disrespect for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values,” he said. “It is evident that the contents of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way that is extraneous to the faith itself.”
“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,” he said.
After the papal apology, the audience continued with joyous performances of Indigenous prayers by drummers, dancers and fiddlers that Francis watched, applauded and gave a thumbs up to. The delegates then presented him with gifts, including snowshoes. Francis, for his part, returned a First Nations cradle that the delegation had left with him overnight as he pondered his apology.
Francis’ apology went far beyond what Pope Benedict XVI had offered in 2009 when an Assembly of First Nations delegation visited. At the time, Benedict only expressed his “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the church.” But he did not apologize.
The Argentine pope is no stranger to offering apologies for his own errors and for what he himself has termed the “crimes” of the institutional church. Most significantly, during a 2015 visit to Bolivia, he apologized for the sins, crimes and offenses committed by the church against Indigenous peoples during the colonial-era conquest of the Americas.
He made clear those same colonial crimes occurred far more recently in Canada at the Catholic-run residential schools.
“Your identity and culture has been wounded, many families separated, many children have become victims of this homogenization action, supported by the idea that progress occurs through ideological colonization, according to programs studied at the table rather than respecting the lives of peoples,” he said.