Promises to keep


By Dr. Michael W. Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Marks at UBC

Special to The Tablet. This content is published with permission and the article originally appeared in the July 2, 2022 edition.

Despite health problems, Pope Francis this month intends to keep his pledge to Indigenous people to visit Turtle Island ‘where I will be able better to express to you my closeness’

There was not a hint of traditional Catholic sensibility about it. Indigenous ceremonies echoed throughout St Peter’s Square as representatives of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples of Canada celebrated their meeting with Pope Francis by dancing in a plethora of colours and sounds in the front yard of the ecclesiastical power that had sanctified their conquest centuries ago.

Between 28 March and 1 April their representatives had spoken for hour after hour with an attentive, compassionate, sometimes deeply moved Pope. He listened to their colonial history of abuse, cultural genocide, intergenerational trauma, social and political marginalisation and community despair.

“I have said this to you and now I am repeating it,” he told them. “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, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown to your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Even the most hardened and cynical among the Indigenous leaders said they had felt that Francis’ remorse was genuine. They left Rome with the assurance that Francis would honour their request that he would come to Canada.

“All these things” hang heavy on the Church in Canada for a multitude of reasons. They include the attempt to eradicate Indigenous culture and spirituality as a prelude to conversion; the ready collusion with the federal government to manage the residential schools, the principal tool deployed to eliminate Indigenous life by removing children from their parents and educating them in dank, dormitory-like structures; and forbidding the use of Indigenous languages and of traditional religious rituals and customs.


Indigenous peoples have long tried to hold the Catholic Church accountable for its part in a process now deemed cultural genocide. This culminated in 2007 with the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement which led to the setting up of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that spoke to thousands of survivors of the residential schools as well as other witnesses, knowledge keepers and elders across the county.

The TRC issued its momentous final report in 2015. Among its 94 calls to action was the pointed request that the Pope “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 the First Nations, Inuit and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools”. He was to deliver this apology in person and in Canada within a year. The Pope didn’t come in 2016 – but he is coming in 2022. Last week the Vatican released a detailed itinerary for this month’s visit, assuaging concerns that health problems might force him to postpone or even cancel the trip.

There is a story behind this unseemly delay. The Canadian conference of Catholic Bishops was nervous about the legal and fiduciary obligations of a papal visit on Canadian soil. The conference had negotiated a way out of paying its fair share of reparation and therapy monies – in sharp contrast with the three non-Catholic Churches (Presbyterian, United and Anglican) that also managed residential schools, which had honoured their financial commitments with comparative alacrity. The government, Indigenous leaders and a platoon of litigators pursued the Catholic Church in both the courts and the public arena seeking compensation; the Church tried to work out an arrangement that looked to the Canadian public like a stalling tactic that would deprive Indigenous survivors of justice. Most Canadian Catholics were outraged.

The bishops’ tactics were not disingenuous nor devious. Their argument – canonical, historically laced and not implausible – was essentially that the Catholic Church in Canada was not the Catholic Church of Canada. Its dioceses report to Rome, not to Ottawa; the Church is not a national and univocal entity but an amalgam of separate parts. Given that the vast majority of the residential schools were administered by religious orders, the only fiscal and legal paths available for restitution were negotiations with each discrete body, of which there were around 50. The way forward would be prolonged, tedious, fractious, and scandal-inducing. Immediate oversight for the schools lay with the religious congregations that staffed them and therefore responsibility in terms of fiscal liability was clear, but the larger issue of episcopal accountability at the national level remained unaddressed. Into this chasm has seeped the deep toxin of distrust and alienation.

The bishops protested again and again that they were not able to meet all their financial obligations because of pressing budget matters – but it didn’t go without notice that while some dioceses are struggling to stay out of bankruptcy, others have been able to deliver multimillion dollar projects such as restored cathedrals, renovated basilicas and revamped seminaries. The Catholic Church in Canada may not be a national Church canonically but, had it acted nationally, it would have gone some way to insulate the hierarchy from a situation that has devastated its credibility


On May 27 last year more than 200 unmarked graves were found using ground-penetrating radar on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. They had been recorded in earlier investigations and their existence was not a deliberately suppressed secret, but this grisly discovery grabbed the attention of international as well as local media. It was a moment of country-wide shame and embarrassment. Catholic leaders were overwhelmed with waves of moral fury and cries for action from both within and without the Church. Senior prelates such as Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto, Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg and Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa found themselves at the centre of a media whirligig and bungled desperately. It was a national mess.

The Pope will visit Edmonton, Quebec City and finally remote Iqaluit before returning to Rome. There is some disappointment that Francis will not be visiting the residential school sites at the core of the national trauma, but reactions from Indigenous leaders have been generally supportive and sympathetic. Although there have been localised efforts at reconciliation that have been productive, national episcopal leadership has been wanting. The stakes are high for the Church’s credibility; this visit must rise above symbolism, general expressions of remorse and public signs of solidarity that don’t produce long term results.

Francis listened to the Indigenous leaders when they were in Rome. He heard their history of suffering, their struggles to preserve their heritage, their special affection for their elderly and their ancestors. And he was inspired by their capacity to see Creation whole. These are a people after all who treasure our common home. When Francis comes to Turtle Island, he will listen again.


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