3 Key Aspects of Pope Francis’ Apology to Canadian Indigenous People

COMMENTARY: While the papal apology has historical, cultural, political and economic aspects, the Holy Father treated this primarily as a religious one at the service of healing and reconciliation as gifts from God.

Pope Francis meets with a delegation of Canada's Indigenous leaders April 1 at the Vatican.
Pope Francis meets with a delegation of Canada's Indigenous leaders April 1 at the Vatican. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

Pope Francis expressed his “indignation and shame” in offering an apology to a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders “for the deplorable conduct of members of the Catholic Church” in relation to residential schools. Residential schools were a Canadian government policy to assimilate Indigenous children in schools largely operated by the Christian churches. Catholic religious orders operated the majority of the schools. 

“I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Pope Francis said in an April 1 audience at the Vatican. 

“We accept this apology,” said Chief Gerald Antoine, head of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) delegation. 

Pope Francis delivered his apology in an address both forthright and lyrical, leaving many of the Indigenous leaders deeply moved.  

At the same time, he announced his intention of visiting Canada, likely in July, to meet Indigenous Canadians on their own land. A 2015 report by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada asked for a papal visit to Canada for that purpose. 

There were three key aspects to the apology Pope Francis made — the context of conquest, the necessity of the Gospel and contrition for counter-witness. 

 

Context of Conquest 

That the Holy Father would offer an apology for the Church’s participation in the government program was never really in doubt. Pope Benedict XVI offered an apology regarding residential schools to another AFN delegation 13 years ago. It was widely considered at the time to “close the circle” on the issue, but subsequent political developments in Canada led Indigenous leaders to discount what they once praised from Benedict. 

The first Latin American pope thinks about Indigenous issues in the broader context of Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion, not primarily the context of French and Irish missionaries in Canada. He addressed the topic most fully on a visit to Bolivia in July 2015. 

“I say this to you with regret: Many grave sins were committed against the native peoples of America in the name of God,” Pope Francis said then. “I wish to be quite clear, as was St. John Paul II: I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offenses of the Church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” 

What Pope Francis did in Rome last week was to apply that general statement about the whole of the Americas to the specific situation in Canada. Last September he did so in relation to Mexico

“This retrospective look necessarily includes a process of purification of memory, that is, recognizing the mistakes made in the past, which have been very painful,” Pope Francis wrote to Mexico. “For this reason on various occasions both my predecessors and myself have asked forgiveness for personal and social sins, for all actions or omissions that did not contribute to evangelization.” 

 

The Gospel Remains Always Good 

“At the same time,” Pope Francis told the Canadian Indigenous delegation, “I think with gratitude of all those good and decent believers who, in the name of the faith, and with respect, love and kindness, have enriched your history with the Gospel.” 

That’s a key and disputed point. Despite the fact that most Indigenous Canadians are Christians, it is held by many cultural and political leaders that Christianity itself was a destructive presence. Indeed, the Indigenous elder who offered an invocation at the papal audience, Fred Kelly, a baptized Catholic, describes himself proudly as a “born again pagan.”  

Thus it was important that the Holy Father insisted that Indigenous cultures — like all cultures — are enriched by Jesus Christ.  

To understand the 2015 Bolivian statement, it is necessary to remember that Pope Francis chose — by waiving the requirement for a miracle — to canonize Father Junipero Serra in September 2015 on his visit to the United States.  

“Junípero Serra sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it,” Pope Francis said on that occasion. “Mistreatment and wrongs which today still trouble us, especially because of the hurt which they cause in the lives of many people.” 

In the Canadian context, Pope Francis took a similar decision to accelerate the canonization of two early Quebec saints, François de Laval, the first bishop in Nouvelle France, and Marie of the Incarnation. In the 17th century, the former defended aboriginal people against exploitation by the French colonial authorities and the latter was a pioneer in the education of aboriginal girls.  

Francis firmly rejected the position that Indigenous culture was diminished by the Gospel, and lifted up the example of the heroic Christian missionaries who evangelized with esteem and respect. 

 

Contrition and Counter-Witness 

“Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself,” Francis said on April 1. “It is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel.” 

Pope Francis placed himself in the line of St. John Paul II, who began the recent tradition of papal apologies. (Already by 1998, Vatican journalist Luigi Accatoli published a book detailing 94 occasions on which the Holy Father had asked for forgiveness.)  

Contrition is required because counter-witness to the Gospel — using state coercion for the sake of evangelization, for example — cannot be justified by good intentions. Counter-witness remains sinful. 

Sinful behavior needs to be repented of, particularly if it causes scandal — in the precise sense of becoming an obstacle to others living the Gospel. Hence, while the papal apology to Canadian Indigenous leaders has historical, cultural, political and economic aspects, Pope Francis treated it primarily as a religious act, one at the service of healing and reconciliation as gifts from God. 

 

A Papal Trip 

Pope Francis intends to visit Canada soon, but “not in the winter,” he joked. He mentioned the feast of St. Anne (July 26), a traditional day of pilgrimage of Canada’s Indigenous Catholics, as a potential date. 

The Roman scene — always on alert for signs of a pontificate’s end — has been murmuring for weeks after the Holy Father canceled appearances in Rome for Ash Wednesday and a day trip to Florence in March. Given the Holy Father’s declining health, there had been doubt whether he would commit to the long-distance trip to Canada.  

On the other hand, the Pope completed a two-day trip to Malta and will be visiting Africa in July. On return from Malta he confessed that his health is “capricious” and that recently he was unable to walk, but now is able to do so. He is clearly confident that he can manage a Canadian visit. 

Newly-elected Dene Nation National Chief Gerald Antoine (l) and former national chief of Canada's Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Phil Fontaine (c), escorted by delegation members, arrive to address the media Thursday in St. Peter's Square following a meeting with the Pope.

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Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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