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Members of the Assembly of First Nations perform in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, on March 31.Alessandra Tarantino/The Associated Press

Michael W. Higgins is principal of St. Mark’s College at the University of British Columbia and senior fellow at Massey College. He is currently writing a book on Pope Francis.

Who can deny the traumatic impact of the discoveries of unmarked graves at Kamloops Indian Residential School in the spring of 2021? But if we were shocked into awareness, ought we to have been? Did we not already know this from the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Report? What stilled our tongues, stoppered our ears and deadened our hearts?

Tim Lilburn, Canadian poet and philosopher, rightly situates our intellectual and spiritual malaise in an essay he sent to me shortly after the grisly discoveries: “Roman Catholics must identify what attitudes in Catholicism instigated the vicious, thanophilic culture in residential schools that religious orders ran … These dispositions, missiological, ecclesiastical, spiritual, interpersonal and the thought-words backing them must be purged.”

That purgation moved to a new and more intense phase when Pope Francis gave his much sought-after apology for the Catholic Church’s role in operating the residential schools, in the Vatican’s Sala Clementina to a gathering of Inuit, Métis and First Nations representatives, as well as to a smattering of Canadian bishops and papal officials. Those present spoke of the experience of hearing this apology as profoundly moving. This pope was attentive to the pain of the Indigenous peoples, declined to offer spiritual blandishments and holy bromides, listened compassionately to their narratives of sadness and suffering, and did not skirt accountability for the wounds of humiliation and degradation inflicted on the First Peoples of Canada.

This apology was a long time in coming. Recommendation #58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report also stipulated that such an apology should be given on Canadian soil, and although the first iteration of the apology was in Rome there is a commitment to come to Canada, very possibly on the Feast of St. Anne in July.

Francis, the first Jesuit pope, is unafraid of facing the shadow side of the church’s history. In his final session with the Canadian Indigenous delegation he left no doubt that the residential schools and their mission to erase Indigenous culture, to instill feelings of inferiority, to deracinate the Indigenous are a counter witness to the Gospel and that “any truly effective process of healing requires concrete actions.”

And so, what form will these concrete actions take? Undoubtedly, in addition to releasing the complete and not redacted or strategically withheld records, there must be a renewed guarantee to honour the financial obligations the Canadian Catholic Church was signatory to and unlike its sister churches shockingly remiss in meeting.

The Canadian Catholic Church is called to bold leadership: it is the Catholic Church in Canada and not the Vatican that bears responsibility for reparation. Shunting matters to Rome avoids the deeper issue of accountability and compromises the importance of subsidiarity in church governance.

For sure, getting an official apology for morally corrosive behaviour by the Church from the institution’s top person, in this case the Successor of St. Peter, is important – cathartic, symbolic and constitutive of genuine remorse.

But there is much more to do and that leadership must originate at the local and national level. Pope Francis, as he did in his 2015 trip to Bolivia when he humbly asked for forgiveness for the “crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” has set the tone, established the model and summoned the Church to forswear any alignment of the “logic of the sword with the power of the Cross.”

Cardinal Mario Grech, secretary-general of the Synod Office in Rome, speaking in March at Oxford University called for an end to the “culture of silence” that has often frustrated lay Catholics from speaking their minds. Cardinal Grech’s call to shatter the culture of silence, when applied to the Canadian context and the Church’s responsibility for healing, means that our leadership must get the job done: no more delays, no more legal legerdemain, no more financial and pastoral prioritizing that relegates Indigenous justice needs to a subordinate status.

For Canadian lay Catholics, Pope Francis has created a new momentum to get things done. Time to break the culture of silence.

I asked an Indigenous knowledge keeper what she would say if she had had time with the Pope. She reflected for a few moments and then said, “I would forgive him and then ask that he respect us.” Out of that respect will come a reverencing of the other as other, a treasuring of the Indigenous peoples and their diverse cultures as a gift to be honoured and not as problem to be solved.

Pope Francis got that right.

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