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Pope Francis arrives at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, in Quebec, on July 28.LARS HAGBERG/AFP/Getty Images

Papal apologies are a very recent phenomenon. The Catholic Church was almost 2,000 years old before popes began even acknowledging the sins that had been committed throughout the centuries in its name. Until then, such transgressions had been largely airbrushed out of papal encyclicals, denied outright or seen as lesser evils perpetrated amid holy efforts to spread the faith.

The Crusades, the Inquisition, the forced conversions of Indigenous peoples, the Vatican’s silence (if not complicity) during the Holocaust, sexual abuse by priests and Ireland’s mother and baby homes all constituted unspeakable horrors that the church had systematically obscured or misrepresented.

It was not until the church prepared to embark on its third millennium that then Pope John Paul II began issuing a series of apologies that aimed, if not to wipe the slate clean, to help clear the conscience of millions of disgruntled Catholics who could not reconcile the church’s words with its actions.

“The history of the Church is a history of holiness,” John Paul said in Incarnationis Mysterium, a 1998 papal bull issued in advance of the 2000 Jubilee. “Yet it must be acknowledged that history also records events which constitute a counter-testimony to Christianity … I ask that in this year of mercy the Church, strong in the holiness which she receives from her Lord, should kneel before God and implore forgiveness for the past and present sins of her sons and daughters.”

In his apology this week to Canada’s Indigenous peoples for the abuse and suffering that they and their ancestors experienced in the residential school system, Pope Francis invoked his predecessor’s words – as if to convey a sense that, what John Paul began, he had come to finish.

“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children,” Pope Francis said Monday in Maskwacis, Alta. “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.”

Thus began the weighing of the Pope’s apology by Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors and Vatican analysts alike. Was it fulsome enough? Did it meet the criteria set out in the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, which listed a papal apology among its 94 Calls to Action?

On inspection, many found the Pope’s apology wanting. Others went further, denouncing what they saw as the Pope’s tone deafness in declaring, during his homily at the Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., pilgrimage on Tuesday, “how much good was done in this regard by missionaries who, as authentic evangelizers, preserved Indigenous languages and cultures in many parts of the world.” After all, residential schools sought to eradicate those same Indigenous languages and cultures in Canada.

“The Holy Father’s statement has left a deep hole in the acknowledgment of the full role of the church in the residential school system, by placing blame on individual members of the church,” TRC chair Murray Sinclair said on Tuesday. “It was more than a few bad actors – this was concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy.”

On Wednesday, in Quebec City, Pope Francis did acknowledge the role “different local Catholic institutions” played in perpetuating the “deplorable” residential school system. But, as a rule, he has privileged a definition of the church, not as a hierarchical institution with a bureaucracy and bank account bigger than that of many countries, but as something else altogether.

“Some think that there are only bishops, the bosses, and then there are the workers,” he said in 2018. “No, the Church is all of us, everyone, each person has their role in the Church, but we are all the Church … We must think of the Church as a living organism, composed of people who we know and with whom we walk, and not as an abstract and distant reality.”

That may sound like a cop-out to anyone who thinks the church, as an institution, must be held accountable for the crimes committed in residential schools and that an apology alone is insufficient. But on his Canadian tour, Pope Francis indicated there is only so far he is willing to go. He is unwilling to sacrifice the church’s principal mission, which he sees as spreading the Gospel and saving souls.

“Sometimes, a good way to help others is not immediately to give them what they ask for, but to accompany them, inviting them to love and to give of themselves,” Pope Francis said at Lac Ste. Anne. “In this way, through the good they can do for others, they will discover their own streams of living water, and the unique and precious treasure that they truly are.”

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