By Michael W. Higgins, October 4, 2022
In a recent interview in Sojourners, Harry Lafond, a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, an educator and a Roman Catholic deacon, spoke of his meeting with Pope John Paul II and identified him as a kichci kehtiyinew, a cherished holy man, a grandfather. That meeting occurred in 1997.
John Paul was not unfamiliar with Canada as he had alighted on Canadian shores three times – 1984, 1987, and 2002.
But none of these papal landings in Canada have been as electrifying, polarizing, or turbulent as the recent pastoral “pilgrimage of penance” of Pope Francis.
Swept up in a whirlwind of conflicting narratives, political point scoring, failed expectations, a soured Canadian public, anxious Catholics, and far from neutral nationwide media coverage, it seems a mite outrageous to say that it was a success, but it was precisely that.
In honouring his pledge in Rome last spring to the Indigenous representatives that had travelled to ask him for an apology for the dreadful legacy of the church-administered residential schools for Indigenous children, Pope Francis knew that this was going to be a journey of pain. But, in spite of his physical impairment, he was resolved to come, offer apology, connect with Indigenous communities on their land, and offer a way forward to meaningful and credible truth and reconciliation.
The situation is fraught. The aftershocks of the residential school system – intact for over a century – have grown in intensity; the Catholic Church, which ran 60 percent of the schools on behalf of the federal government, has faced an onslaught of criticism regarding its failed stewardship. And the “discovery” of some 200 unmarked graves at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, which had been under the aegis of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, unleashed a torrent of rage and calls for action.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has not handled this file well, in sharp contrast with some individual bishops like Don Bolen of Regina and Michael Miller of Vancouver, and as a consequence Francis’s visit is a repair operation.
In his address at Vespers in the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre Dame de Québec, Francis adroitly acknowledged the special significance of such Quebec-born thinkers as Charles Taylor and Bernard Lonergan, with a generous nod to St. François de Montmorency Laval, the first Roman Catholic bishop of Canada and a seminary builder par excellence (an institution whose best-before date has long expired). In the process, he paid subtle tribute to the role his two Canadian cardinals have played in preparation for this trip: Marc Ouellet and Michael Czerny, both Quebeckers, one by birth and the other by early formation.
In quoting Taylor on secularization, he notes that it represents a challenge for our pastoral imagination, “an occasion for restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.” In applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric, and deft political manoeuvring?
Theologian Frederick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options: “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist], who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbors.”
The option is either aggressive proselytization or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear. Francis repeatedly has called for the recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.
Although official Catholic thinking on matters of missiology, interfaith sensitivity and religious freedom have changed profoundly as a consequence of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), centuries of encrusted prejudice, racial superiority and ecclesial triumphalism retain their residual power. This must end.
Faced with our tragic history of residential schools and their embodiment of a culture of contempt, we need to accept with contrition and humility – qualities much prized in the tradition of Catholic piety – our personal and collective responsibilities.
Francis understands this at the most visceral and compassionate level. For me the most telling and effective moments that spoke to the pastoral instincts of this pope were his kissing of the hand of an elder and his return of a pair of child’s moccasins to a former chief as he had promised when first he received them last spring in Rome. Tactile moments; moments of embrace; gestures of connections.
For sure, the political squabbling and ecclesial debates in the background often moved for the foreground, but Francis relished the personal encounter over the ideological jostling and political posturing.
And, of course, once freed from script and protocol, he spoke his mind freely on the plane back to Rome, conceding that indeed what happened to the Indigenous peoples was genocide, and that the controverted “Doctrine of Discovery” reflected a colonial mentality that must be repudiated.
His critics got what they wanted. But on his terms. The “pilgrimage of penance” would not be compromised. The personal encounter would be prioritized, the deepest empathy assured, and reverencing the “other” made an imperative.
Deacon Lafond has spoken about “wahkohtowin which in Cree refers to building relationships and connections; we have laws of behaviour about how to treat human beings. To reset the relationship between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples, we have to follow processes that take us there.”
Now back to the Canadian bishops.
Michael W. Higgins is Basilian Distinguished Fellow of Contemporary Catholic Thought, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, a Senior Fellow at Massey College, and Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut.