When friends ask Rose-Alma McDonald, “How can you still go to that church?” – and they ask often – the 68-year-old Mohawk from Akwesasne knows exactly what they’re getting at.
For much of last year, the doors of her Catholic church were surrounded by hundreds of baby shoes, reminders of the unmarked graves located around the site of a former Catholic Church-run residential school in Kamloops last June.
“Yeah, it tested my faith,” said Ms. McDonald, a lay minister. “It made me feel bad.”
Like many of Canada’s 11 million Catholics, Ms. McDonald will be watching the developments from an Indigenous delegation’s visit to the Vatican later this month with nervous anticipation. While she hopes the trip, along with a widely anticipated papal apology on Canadian soil, can begin to reverse the church’s troubled relationship with Indigenous people, she knows junkets and regret alone won’t cut it.
“It’s a good idea, but it took so long. I think someone at the Vatican really dropped the ball,” Ms. McDonald said of the delegation. “An apology might give some people relief, but what does that mean in terms of lost culture, lost language, trauma, the intergenerational impacts of residential school?”
It has been seven years since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) called on the Pope to apologize for the abuses at Catholic-run residential schools. But it took last year’s Kamloops announcement – accompanied by an internal backlash from shocked church members – to spur Canada’s bishops and the Vatican to take action.
Canadian bishops apologized last year, and Indigenous leaders will be asking the Pope to apologize in their meetings with him next week in Rome.
Now, those internal critics are urging the church to go beyond an apology and address other Indigenous inequities. Doing too little, they say, risks further alienating a broad faction of Catholics who’ve grown weary of scandal and inaction.
“It’s a moment of crisis – existential crisis – for Catholics in the pews,” said Darren Dias, a theology professor at the University of St. Michael’s College in Toronto. “They may have disagreed with the church’s teaching on artificial contraception or human sexuality, but now to see the church engaged in crimes and then coverups, this is really difficult for people. The question is: Will they change the church from within or will they just walk away?”
The church’s delayed apology for residential schools is reminiscent of its response to a decades-long sexual-abuse crisis, typified by a lack of acknowledgment, accountability and transparency, according to some Catholics. The approach has been blamed on clericalism – the concentration of power and authority within a clergy that is unaccountable to average churchgoers. Pope Francis has denounced clericalism and launched a mass consultation effort, called synodality, to foster a more participatory church.
A week after the Kamloops announcement, Prof. Dias signed a petition from “concerned Canadian Catholics” demanding an apology from the Pope, $20-million in restitution for reconciliation efforts and money for reburials, if required.
Today, he also wants to see the church champion the TRC’s calls to action – 94 recommendations covering everything from new legislation to education, health care and language rights.
The church addressed some of the fury around restitution last September when the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) announced a campaign to raise $30-million over five years for reconciliation efforts. But the announcement came amid withering criticism from Indigenous groups and the CCCB’s own members over a failure to meet a previous commitment of $25-million as part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. That campaign ultimately raised just $3.7-million.
“It was clear to a number of people that the best-efforts collection of $3.7-million did not seem to be a genuine attempt,” said another petition signatory, Richard Alway, the recently retired president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. “We’re looking at progress now. But it’s slow and it’s gradual.”
Some Catholics think the money should come from the Holy See, not Canadian collection plates.
“I see the Vatican sitting on vast riches,” Toronto Catholic Carla DeSantis said. “They could sell a painting or a property rather than turning around and asking parishioners to fund the restitution.”
The federal government estimates at least 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended roughly 140 residential schools between the 1880s and 1997. Government officials directed school staff to prohibit children from speaking their own languages. Two of the TRC’s calls to action ask churches to educate clergy and congregations on Indigenous issues, as well as foster language and cultural revitalization.
Some Catholics want to see a greater commitment to those principles after the delegation’s visit to the Vatican.
“If the church wants to forge ties with Indigenous people, they should work with people like me to bring our language into church,” said Rennie Nahanee a Catholic deacon and Squamish Nation elder. “If they don’t do that, then what the church is doing is just PR.”
Deacon Nahanee said the Pope could also play a symbolic role in land claims issues by renouncing several centuries-old decrees, called papal bulls, that granted Christian explorers the authority to claim lands occupied by non-Christians. The decrees still underpin the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal concept that lends European countries sovereignty and title to lands claimed during the Age of Discovery. The CCCB rejected the concept in 2017, but a papal revocation would hold greater meaning.
“The Vatican caused a lot of our problems today because of the papal bull and Doctrine of Discovery,” Deacon Nahanee said. “The Pope should renounce it.”
Over its 2,000-year history, the Catholic Church has weathered war, pestilence, fascism and famine by adhering to ancient doctrine. Change comes slowly, Ms. McDonald said. Born into a Catholic family, she left the church when she was young. “I don’t know how to say it nice, but the church was too white for me,” she said. “I’m a Mohawk woman in a Mohawk community. The priests they sent here were white and older and didn’t bother to understand our culture.”
Twenty years ago, she returned, persuaded by the growing diversity among the clergy and the introduction of Mohawk traditions and rituals such as smudging and drumming in church services. “It is definitely evolving,” she said, “which has been a long time coming.”
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