MASKWACIS, Alta. (AP) — Pope Francis on Monday issued a historic apology for the Catholic Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” policy on residential schools, saying the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, separated families and marginalized generations.
“I am deeply sorry,” Francis said to the applause of school survivors and members of the Indigenous community gathered at a former residential school south of Edmonton, Alberta. He called the school’s policy a “disastrous error” inconsistent with the gospel and said further investigation and healing were needed.
“I humbly ask for forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against indigenous peoples,” Francis said.
In the first event of his “week-long penitential pilgrimage,” Francis traveled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray in a cemetery, then deliver the long-awaited apology at the nearby ceremonial powwow grounds. . Four chiefs escorted the wheelchair-bound pontiff to the site near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School and presented him with a feathered headdress after his speech, making him an honorary community leader.
Francis’ words went beyond his earlier apologies for “deplorable” abuses committed by missionaries and instead took institutional responsibility for the Church’s cooperation with Canada’s “catastrophic” assimilation policy, which, according to the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, amounted to “cultural genocide”.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their home and culture. The goal was to Christianize them and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
Ottawa has admitted physical and sexual abuse is rampant in schools, with students beaten for speaking their native language. This legacy of abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction currently on Canadian reservations.
The discovery of hundreds of potential burial sites in former schools over the past year has drawn international attention to the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States. The revelations prompted Francis to comply with the truth commission’s call for an apology on Canadian soil; Catholic religious orders operated 66 of the country’s 139 boarding schools.
Reflecting the mixed emotions of the day, some in the crowd wept as Francis spoke, while others clapped or remained silent as they listened to his words, delivered in his native Spanish with English translations. Others chose not to attend at all.
“I’ve waited 50 years for this apology, and finally today I heard it,” said survivor Evelyn Korkmaz. “Part of me is happy, part of me is sad, part of me is numb.” She added, however, that she had hoped to hear a “work plan” from the pope on what he would do next to reconcile, including releasing church records of children who died in schools.
Many in the crowd wore traditional clothing, including skirts with colorful ribbons and native-patterned vests. Others donned orange shirts, which have become a symbol of school survivors, recalling the story of a woman whose beloved orange shirt, a gift from her grandmother, was confiscated in a school and replaced by a uniform.
“It’s something that’s needed, not just for people to hear, but for the church to be accountable,” said Sandi Harper, who traveled with her sister and a Saskatchewan church group in honor. of their late mother, who attended boarding school.
“He recognizes that this path to reconciliation will take time, but he is truly on our side,” she said, calling the apology “heartfelt.”
Despite the solemnity of the event, the atmosphere sometimes seemed joyful: the chiefs went to the site to the sound of a hypnotic rhythm, the elders danced and the crowd applauded and chanted songs of war, chants of victory and finally a song of healing. Attendees paraded a long red banner on the grounds bearing the names of more than 4,000 children who died or never returned from residential schools; Francis kissed her later.
” I was not deceived. It was a momentous occasion,” said Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor and former chief of the Assembly of First Nations who went public with his story of sexual abuse in the 1990s.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologized last year for “incredibly harmful government policy,” was also present, along with other officials.
As part of a lawsuit settlement involving the government, churches and approximately 90,000 survivors, Canada paid reparations amounting to billions of dollars transferred to Indigenous communities. The Catholic Church in Canada says its dioceses and religious orders have provided more than $50 million in cash and in-kind and hopes to add another $30 million over the next five years.
While the pope acknowledged blame, he also clarified that Catholic missionaries were merely cooperating and carrying out government policy, which he called a “colonizing powerhouse mentality.” Notably, he did not refer to the 15th century papal decrees that provided religious support to the European colonial powers in the first place.
Jeremy Bergen, an expert in church apology and professor of religious and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ont., said Francis made it clear he was asking forgiveness for the actions of “members of the church” but not of the institution as a whole.
“The idea is that, as the Body of Christ, the church itself is sinless,” he said by email.
“So when Catholics do bad things, they’re not really acting on behalf of the church,” Bergen added, noting that it’s a controversial idea that many Catholic theologians aren’t sure about. Okay.
Francis said the schools marginalized generations, suppressed indigenous languages, resulted in physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse, and “indelibly affected the relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.” He called for further investigation, a possible reference to requests for access to parish registers and the personal files of priests and nuns to identify the perpetrators of abuse.
“Although Christian charity was not absent and there were many outstanding examples of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of residential school policies were catastrophic,” Francis said. “What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
The Americas’ first pope was determined to make the trip, even though torn knee ligaments forced him to cancel a visit to Africa earlier this month.
The six-day visit — which also includes stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Far North — follows meetings Francis held in the spring at the Vatican with First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations. Those encounters culminated in Francis apologizing on April 1 for the “deplorable” abuses at residential schools and a promise to start over on Canadian soil.
Francis recalled that one of the delegations gave him a set of beaded moccasins as a symbol of children who never came home from school, and asked him to return them to Canada. François said that during these months they “maintained my feeling of grief, indignation and shame”, but that in returning them he hoped that they could also represent a path to walk together.
Event organizers had mental health counselors on hand Monday, knowing the event could be traumatic for some people.
Later Monday, Francis visited the Church of the Sacred Heart of First Peoples, an Edmonton parish whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored after a fire. The church incorporates indigenous language and customs into the liturgy, and both were on display during the event, along with folk songs and drumming, and served as the backdrop for the Pope’s visit.
Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Holly Meyer in Nashville, Tennessee, contributed.
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