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Reflections on Pope Francis’ Penitential Pilgrimage: Moving from wrongs to rights.

Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage to Turtle Island to speak words of apology to Indigenous communities regarding residential schools has been historic and important.  There are a wide range of critical and positive reactions among Survivors of residential schools and Indigenous leaders to the Pope’s statements while in Canada.  As a Settler, it’s certainly not my place to evaluate these perspectives so, in this piece dear reader, please allow me to offer a few reflections on the implications of the Pope’s visit for the broader church in Canada – including the CRC.

Its been quite extraordinary to see themes come up media reporting on the visit: assimilation and enfranchisement (as mentioned in the speech at Maskwacis),  genocide (as discussed on the flight from Iqaluit to Rome), the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (in the speech at the Quebec City Citadelle), and the Doctrine of Discovery. Each one of these themes are prominent in the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC).

[This] is a reminder to all people in this place called Canada that healing and reconciliation are a shared responsibility

In naming assimilation and enfranchisement, Pope Francis acknowledged the cultural, language and worldview destruction perpetrated by residential schools and the broader system. The TRC termed this brutal reality a cultural genocide…. And the ongoing effects of residential schools and assimilation policies such as the 60s scoop have deep intergenerational effects in Indigenous communities. Therefore, it was poignant that Pope Francis referred to residential schools as genocide in conversation with reporters on his flight back to the Vatican: “To take away children, to change the culture, their mindset, their traditions — to change a race, an entire culture … yes I (do) use the word genocide.” (as quoted by Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press July 30, 2022

The Pope’s penitential posture on the genocidal violence of assimilation and colonialism is a reminder to all people in this place called Canada that healing and reconciliation are a shared responsibility. 

The TRC called the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples a framework for reconciliation (Call to Action 48).  The Declaration was designed by Indigenous rights holders and affirms Indigenous cultural, linguistic and spiritual self determination. The undermining of these basic principles of human dignity were the essence of colonialism. For this reason it is encouraging that Pope Francis noted the Declaration as an important foundation of Catholic efforts to support Indigenous cultures and languages. Meaningful long-term commitments to the support of Indigenous cultural resilience by Settler communities and leaders are an important (albeit imperfect) antidote to cultural genocide.

the CRC recognized the DoD as a heresy... a good gesture that we are striving and struggling to live into.

In discussions leading up to the Pope’s visit, significant numbers of survivors and Indigenous leaders asked that the Pope rescind the Doctrine of Discovery (DoD). The DoD is actually three Papal bulls (or declarations) from the 15th Century that grant the Church’s permission for European monarchs to colonize lands not populated by Christians. Indeed non-Christian and non-European peoples were considered to be pagan and less than human. The DoD is at the root of European presumptions of cultural superiority and legal-and-land sovereignty which has the force of legal precedent in the US and Canada.  It ultimately shaped residential schools and the Indian Act.  Conversation on the DoD had a high profile in the media throughout the Papal pilgrimage and it is a good thing to look back on it.  Papal rescinding of the DoD would be largely symbolic today because its core implications are now rooted in legal systems. However, if rescinding also comes with a clear recognition of the sinful presumptions of European superiority implied in the DoD it could well lead to a healthy reckoning about colonial mission practices in the churches.  In 2016, the CRC recognized the DoD as a heresy... a good gesture that we are striving and struggling to live into.

Apologies, such as brought by Pope Francis on this pilgrimage are important gestures that must be followed up by actions. It is easy to speak noble words and harder to live them – this is as true for the Catholic church as it is for other churches or Settler institutions. So yes, our church community has made some gestures of reconciliation in calling the DoD heresy, or in affirming the UN Declaration as a framework for reconciliation… these statements are not the end of the matter.  The injustices of colonialism are rooted in broken relationships and broken treaties/covenants so turning away from the evil (so aptly named by the Pope) and towards right relationship is critical if statements for reconciliation are to have any meaning.

Therefore the apology was not resolution – it was only a beginning point for a new relationship

And right relationship means listening deeply to Indigenous neighbours…. After the Prime Minister’s apology to residential school Survivors in 2008, Terry LeBlanc an Indigenous theologian and church leader met with some Canadian CRC leaders. He explained that apologies have counterpoints – “Parliamentary leaders acknowledged that they robbed the nation of the contribution that Aboriginal people might make – the counterpoint is that Aboriginal people have a contribution to make to this place and nation – we need to do things to ensure that this contribution can be re-acquired.  If there was a wrong, there is a right.  This needs to move from personal change to collective responsibility at multiple levels.  Therefore the apology was not resolution – it was only a beginning point for a new relationship that is characterized by mutual responsibility.”

May Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage remind all of us of the importance of moving away from colonial wrongs and toward a right – that is mutual respect and responsibility in the sacred call to right relationship and reconciliation.

Photo by Nacho Arteaga on Unsplash


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