Why hasn’t Pope Francis apologised in Canada? Ask the bishops

In the last two months, over 1,000 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at four residential schools have been discovered in Canada: 182 at St. Eugene’s Mission School and 215 at Kamloops Indian Residential School (British Columbia), 104 at Brandon Indian Residential School (Manitoba), and up to 751 at Marieval Indian Residential School(Saskatchewan).

And there will be more.

Over the years, Indigenous leaders, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Parliament and plenty of Catholics have all called on Pope Francis to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools on Canadian soil.

Catholics operated up to 60% of the schools, where Indigenous children were separated from their families, abused and alienated from their histories and language in a process of cultural genocide.

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which centred on residential schools and finished in 2015, provides some clear guidelines and ample evidence as to what, exactly, an apology should look like, pointing to a 2010 apology made to victims of abuse in Ireland.

So why hasn’t Pope Francis made the trip?

While demands from politicians or community leaders might create public pressure, only one body holds the keys to a papal visit: the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It’s easy to view the Catholic Church as a strict, obvious chain of command.

While the church is hardly a democracy, authority is distributed in complicated ways.

The pope is authoritative, but he respects the autonomy of local bishops. Without a collective invitation, the pope will not invite himself to a country out of respect for those bishops.

In other words, unless the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops requests the pope to come to Canada, no amount of political or moral pressure will get the pope on a plane.

And since the bishops have not been unanimous when it comes to wanting a papal apology in Canada, the conference has stalled the process. The Canadian bishops may not always say this publicly, but it’s not a secret in the church.

While several bishops have said they want a papal apology in Canada, and some have even tried to make it happen independent of unity within the conference, other bishops often appeal to flimsy excuses to deflect the fact that they have not, as a conference, extended the invitation. For example, in a recent CBC interview with Rosemary Barton, the archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, cited two major difficulties: the pope’s age, and the complexities involved in high profile papal journeys.

These may indeed be difficulties, but they aren’t insurmountable.

In March, Francis went to Iraq in the middle of the pandemic. His potential trips in 2021 keep him close to home, but Francis has expressed a desire to visit the war-torn country of South Sudan.

Apart from Pope John Paul II, Francis is the most travelled pope in the history of the Catholic Church, and there is no indication that he has any intention of stopping.

As for complexities, Francis could limit such a trip to meeting with Indigenous people and residential school survivors, responding to the call to apologize in Canada, and moving on.

Of course, Francis could choose whether or not these are barriers himself — if he was given an invitation.

Collins added that grand gestures are not the most significant steps on the path to reconciliation, and he emphasized the quiet, day-to-day work on the ground. In covering reconciliation efforts as a Catholic journalist in Canada, everyone I have spoken with who does such work has said a papal apology in Canada would help their efforts. If the bishops want to empower local work, they should actively seek a more global apology.

In a particularly egregious deflection, certain bishops like to cite an apology made by Pope Benedict XVI to a delegation from the Assembly of First Nations in 2009.

Phil Fontaine, at the time the national chief of the AFN, said the meeting should “close the book” on the need for an apology.

After the findings of the TRC, however, Fontaine made it clear that things have changed, and he wants a papal apology in Canada.

Some bishops and the bishops’ conference itself have nevertheless continued to quote Fontaine’s 2009 remarks. In 2018, Fontaine said the bishops were misusing his words to resist calls for an apology in Canada. Continue reading

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