“Sorry is not enough any more” – an analysis

Pope Francis prays silently at the water’s edge at Lac Ste. Anne, during the papal visit to the Indigenous Peoples of Canada. (File photo by Michael Swan, The Catholic Register - CCN)

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – The gentle pope has whispered in the ear of Canadians the hard truth that it is time to face how this land and its resources passed into our hands and how Indigenous people were made poor in a rich country. These are not memories we treasure in our hearts. But like disinfectant applied to a wound, hard truth will lead the way to healing.

It’s important for Canadian Catholics not to get ahead of themselves. We have not achieved healing – and Pope Francis’ apology on Canadian soil, fulfilling Call to Action #58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, was never going to be a magic formula for reconciliation.

“Sorry is not enough any more,” 82-year-old survivor Dr. Jeanne Paul from the Coast Salish Tribe of the Tla’amin Band near Powell River, B.C., told The Catholic Register in an email.

“Tears are not enough any more. Something has to change before we all die off and be forgotten.”

RELATED: The seven public statements by Pope Francis in Canada (CCCB links)

Pope Francis, another elder in his 80s, has passed that responsibility for change along to all of us. The Pope cannot meaningfully tell the Inuit gathered in Iqaluit of “the indignation and shame that I have felt for months” if we Catholics do not also feel that shame and humiliation — and act upon it.

“I want to tell you how very sorry I am and to ask for forgiveness for the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics,” Pope Francis said in quiet, unhurried, humble Spanish, only to have his apology repeated in the stentorian, dramatic tones of his interpreter, Fr. Marcel Carron.

In Iqaluit, Ben Kovic wished that the booming declamations of apology issued from formal scripts would cease. He wanted Pope Francis to put aside the scripts prepared by bishops, theologians and curial officials.

“Just talk to us,” was Kovic’s wish.

Of course this is exactly what Francis did in private meetings with survivors at each of his stops in Canada.

But Pope Francis also spoke to the whole Church in the language of prayer and silence. Wearing an Indigenous-designed stole to lead us in the Lord’s Prayer, he demonstrated Pope John Paul II’s historic declaration that “Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself Indian.”

When Pope Francis prayed silently at the water’s edge at Lac Ste. Anne, he showed us that the limitations of language do not limit either our grief or our hope for redemption.

When he returned the children’s moccasins left in Rome by Chief Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, Pope Francis demonstrated how reconciliation happens through encounter and exchange.

When he kissed the hand of survivor Alma Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nation, he showed us that healing must be a tender, human encounter.

When he blessed the people at Lac Ste. Anne, using their own holy water from Manitou Sakahikan, “God Lake,” he chose the holiness of God’s own people for God’s own people.

While Pope Francis spoke to survivors, he was also transmitting an essential message to the whole Church in Canada. Tess Smith, standing at the crowd control barrier outside of Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, was picking up the signal.

“To finally have him here, it’s the start of choosing love over fear,” she said. “The Catholic Church isn’t running and hiding…. The truth will always prevail. That’s what Jesus teaches.”

For more than five years retired judge George Valin of North Bay, Ont., pestered Canada’s bishops to issue a clear, simple invitation to Pope Francis to come to Canada and fulfill Call to Action #58. Inaction on an apology was, for Valin, inexcusable and it nearly drove him out of his Church. Now on the other side of that apology, Valin has found some peace.

“I was always of the view that when he got here he would do the right thing. In my view, he did,” said Valin. “I feel that Call to Action #58 has been completed or fulfilled.”

Valin knows he will not be the ultimate judge of the apology. The apology belongs to the survivors. They will judge, in their hearts.

For Mi’kmaq scholar and former New Brunswick Lieutenant Governor Graydon Nicholas, the apology closes a circle that began in 1610, when Chief Membertou accepted baptism and made an alliance with the Church.

“That’s where evangelization began,” Nicholas said.

Seeing now how Catholic evangelization went wrong does not remove the Church’s obligation to do evangelization right, Pope Francis argued at vespers in Quebec City.

“A discerning view, while acknowledging the difficulties we face in communicating the joy of the faith, motivates us to develop a new passion for evangelization,” he said. “To look for new languages and forms of expression, to change certain pastoral priorities and to focus on the essentials.”

Reconciliation will not merely change the Church’s relationship with Indigenous people. It will transform the Church itself because the incarnation transformed the world.

“God has placed His tent in our midst; He accompanies us through our deserts. He does not dwell in heavenly mansions, but in our Church, which He wants to be a house of reconciliation,” Pope Francis said at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton. “Lord Jesus, crucified and risen, you dwell here, in the midst of your people, and you want your glory to shine forth through our communities and in our cultures. Take us by the hand, and even through the deserts of history, continue to guide our steps on the way of reconciliation.”

If not enough was said about the Doctrine of Discovery, it leaves room for continued dialogue. The Canadian bishops are working with the Roman curia to produce a statement on the hated doctrine, but not a meaningless gesture of rubbishing a long dead papal bull. Instead, the Church will choose sides.

In the crowd in the Iqaluit school yard, Elisapee Flaherty wanted Canada to face its history.

“We have to remember so we don’t have this happen again,” she said.

In the sanctuary of Ste. Anne de Beaupre while waiting for Pope Francis, survivor Vaughan Nicholas held out hope for a future that would extend through generations.

“I may not see it in my lifetime,” he said. “A lot of survivors are gone. I feel for them too.”

Survivor Shirley Gagnon, wearing the crude haircut the Sisters imposed on her at Ste. Anne’s Indian Residential School in Fort Albany, Ont., knew why she was there in the church at Ste. Anne de Beaupre.

“I’m here to hear the Pope tell me that I’m a worthy person,” she said.

“I needed this so I can turn back to God,” said Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Nancy Saddleman as she stood among 40,000 at Mass in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium.

“When we walk together — the Pope is leading us that way — things are better,” said Norman Meade, standing by his eight-year-old granddaughter Everlee Meade in Maskwacis.

“We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation,” Pope Francis told the Meades along with all the people gathered in Maskawacis.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of Wilton Littlechild during a meeting with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities at Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022. Former TRC Commissioner, Chief and MP, Wilton Littlechild attend Ermineskin Residential School at Maskwacis. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)