The overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Pope Francis arrived to the first ceremony of his trip to Canada in a silence marked only by the solemn song intoned by a single Indigenous leader. Pushed in a wheelchair, he was followed by four chiefs of the First Nations wearing their intricate bonnets (one of which was presented to the Pope at the end of the ceremony; pictured above). The Pope made his first stop at a cemetery, where he prayed in silence.
The crosses of the gravestones are for the most part surrounded by a circle, with four feathers.
Vatican News noted that the Pope is visiting the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the country’s largest. It was operated by Catholic missionaries from its foundation in 1895 until the federal government assumed responsibility for the facility in 1969. The school was closed six years later.
Our own efforts are not enough
Following his time of silent prayer, the Pope listened to presentations and songs, including the Grand Entrance of the Chiefs. The meeting brought together First Nations, Metis, and Inuit survivors of residential schools from around the country.
In his message, given in Spanish and translated in English, he said, “On this first step of my journey, I have wanted to make space for memory. Here, today, I am with you to recall the past, to grieve with you, to bow our heads together in silence and to pray before the graves. Let us allow these moments of silence to help us interiorize our pain.
“Silence. And prayer. In the face of evil, we pray to the Lord of goodness; in the face of death, we pray to the God of life. Our Lord Jesus Christ took a grave, which seemed the burial place of every hope and dream, leaving behind only sorrow, pain and resignation, and made it a place of rebirth and resurrection, the beginning of a history of new life and universal reconciliation.
“Our own efforts are not enough to achieve healing and reconciliation: we need God’s grace. We need the quiet and powerful wisdom of the Spirit, the tender love of the Comforter. May he bring to fulfilment the deepest expectations of our hearts. May he guide our steps and enable us to advance together on our journey.”
It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this.
The Pope offered a strongly worded apology, which brought applause from the crowd on several occasions.
I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.
Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Bull Incarnationis Mysterium [29 November 1998), 11: AAS 91 , 140).
I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.
At the end of his address, Pope Francis returned a pair of children’s moccasins that the First Nations delegation had symbolically entrusted to the Pontiff when they visited him in Rome.
“These moccasins also speak to us of a journey,” said the pontiff, evoking the possibility of a “future of justice, healing and reconciliation” at the end of the common walk undertaken by the Catholic Church and the indigenous peoples .