It has been a couple of weeks since the Canadian bishops released their “Letter to indigenous Peoples in Canada” (PM, April 11). The letter “updated” the people that Pope Francis’s response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call to action #58 was a no go. He was not coming to Canada to apologize for the church’s role in the Indian residential schools.
The letter was a highlight in the media for a few days and has since faded from the public view of most Canadians, but I don’t think that we have seen the end of the story. It may have seemed for some to be a quick bite, over and done but, for those to whom it was written, it is now being slowly digested. My worry is that the aftertaste will be lasting and bitter.
I was a pastor in Saskatoon when Pope Francis was elected. The first months of his pontificate made daily headlines as he continuously broke with the pattern of former popes, diving headlong into the sheepfold of the masses, encouraging bishops and pastors to do the same and get their hands dirty on the frontlines of the church.
The word around town was that Saskatoon might be a place that the pope would come and visit. This was well before the final report of the TRC, but it was holding one of its national events in the city and it was thought that Saskatoon would make an ideal place for Pope Francis to speak to Canadians and, in particular, to the indigenous people who make up a significant percentage of the Western Canadian demographic.
With the Calls to Action, and the desire for the indigenous people to receive an apology from the Holy Father for the residential schools, it seemed like the perfect, added reason for the pope to make the trip. With the “Letter,” two things have happened. First, the trip is postponed indefinitely. If there was no word, there was always the hope that Pope Francis would be coming sometime soon, even if we didn’t know when. That hope seems to have been taken away as “sometime soon” has been replaced with “maybe, in the future.” You only had to have been a kid hearing those words about a possible family trip to Disneyland to understand the difference in tone and how deflating to a heartfelt desire.
Despite the letdown, the second thing is more concerning. “With careful and serious consideration and after extensive dialogue,” Francis feels he cannot personally respond to the request for an apology. I am not questioning the Holy Father’s motives. I personally trust that there are good and valid reasons for his and the Canadian bishops’ decision but, whatever the reasons, it sends a message that will not be helpful in our moving forward with the process of reconciliation and may, in fact, hinder its development.
Some have argued that the apology isn’t really necessary; after all, Pope Benedict already expressed his sorrow for the residential schools to Assembly of First Nations leader Phil Fontaine in 2009. Other church leaders, including bishops from our own diocese, have made similar gestures. But in the eyes of the aggrieved, an expression of sorrow does not amount to an explicit apology and the authority of a local bishop does not amount to the authority of the supreme pontiff of the Universal Church.
Strong voices within the First Nations community are saying that, without an explicit apology from Pope Francis, reconciliation cannot move forward. But let’s put this argument aside. Let’s say we, as a church, have apologized, and apologized well. Does it really mean that we do not have to take Call to Action #58 seriously? When a relationship has been damaged by a breach of trust, not in a small way but in a very serious, catastrophic way, what is the correct number of apologies?
When asked by his disciples how many times should one forgive when we have been wronged Jesus said seventy times seven, a number which figuratively means a boundless amount of times. If Christ had been asked the converse, “If I hurt someone, how many times should I ask forgiveness,” his answer may have been similar. Sometimes it is necessary to say “I’m sorry” more than once.
So where does that leave us as we look forward?
As a bishop whose diocese is made up of a majority of indigenous people, I am torn in how to respond. First, for those people who are silent, I want to encourage them to speak and make sure I listen to their voice before I project my own concerns and feelings over what this might mean. To those who are vocal and angry and who say reconciliation is not possible without an apology I want to counsel against giving this news too much energy, to not letting the decision of someone so far away have such control over the future of our journey toward reconciliation here at home.
For now, I think that listening is the better option and I encourage anyone who wants to share their thoughts on this development to get in touch with me, so I can hear you.
One thing from the letter is clear: moving forward, the onus is left on us, all Canadians. Indigenous people and non-indigenous people together; first peoples, pioneers and newcomers, must take the matter of reconciliation into our own hands. Whether an apology will ever come or never come, we must continue the other, harder work of reconstructing that which has been broken.
The letter has it right when it says that the pope encourages bishops “to continue to engage in an intensive pastoral work of reconciliation, healing and solidarity with the indigenous peoples and to collaborate in concrete projects aimed at improving the condition of the First Peoples. . . . The bishops of Canada are equally convinced about the primary need for additional work to be done at the most local level, in terms of authentic encounters which address the helps and hurts, dreams and aspirations, needs and traditions of indigenous peoples.”
Intensive, concrete, authentic. . . . This kind of work takes time, patience and perseverance, but if we commit ourselves to it, it will have a better chance to make a far more lasting effect than a momentary, media-driven papal visit. In numerous ways this work is already proceeding but it will not be without setbacks. These need to be expected and faced because the work of reconciliation is never a straight forward path.
At the beginning of this letter I expressed my worry that the flavour of this setback would be bitter and lasting, my hope is that it will not, in the long run, spoil the feast.
Hansen was ordained bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese in the Northwest Territories on March 16. See his website: www.jonhansencssr.com