Some Catholics say it’s not easy to reconcile their faith with what they see as the Pope’s lackluster apology for the horrors Church-run residential schools inflicted on Indigenous children, but for many, the process involves trying to change the institution, rather than abandoning it.
The pontiff’s “penitential pilgrimage” across Canada saw him say sorry for the actions of “so many Christians,” but some say Pope Francis should have done more to acknowledge the Catholic Church itself was guilty for abuse at the facilities.
“It’s a challenge to one’s faith, because the Pope is a spiritual leader — and he’s my spiritual leader. And he chose to use language that does not take on the full responsibility, as he could have,” said Paolo De Buono, a Catholic teacher in Toronto.
“So it does make me feel ashamed and concerned that the organization I’m a part of is further hurting by not issuing a full apology.”
Early Saturday morning on the trip back to the Vatican, the Pope used a word he did not while on Canadian soil: genocide. He agreed that the abuses Indigenous Peoples faced while being forced to attend residential schools amounted to genocide.
However, he still did not go so far as to acknowledge the Catholic Church itself was responsible.
De Buono said he would have expected to see Pope Francis focus more on the “collective role of the Church,” rather than “what some people did.”
It’s a common criticism of the apology, including from those it was directed toward: Indigenous people who were sent to residential school and those who grapple with the intergenerational trauma that comes from their family members being separated and their cultures suppressed.
But like many Catholics, De Buono said he hopes to change the institution from within, rather than leaving the faith.
For example, De Buono has been outspoken on Twitter about refusing to teach his students that LGBTQ attraction and relationships are wrong.
“I openly question it,” he said.
Reid Locklin, a professor of Christianity at the University of Toronto and St. Michael’s College, said he’s hopeful more Catholics will take that tack.
“The necessity of the disappointment of the visit is that people are gonna say: OK, that wasn’t what we hoped for. Now it’s up to those of us who are Canadian Catholics to do better,” said Locklin, who is a practicing Catholic.
That sort of local responsibility is somewhat in line with Pope Francis’s leadership approach, he said. Francis tends to advocate for “synodality,” which lends more autonomy to national or regional bishops’ conferences.
It’s one of the ways Pope Francis has sought to reform the Church since becoming its leader in 2013, Locklin said, along with efforts to change the way the institution is viewed.
“(He’s) trying to reshape the imagination of the Catholic Church such that it’s really very much a church of the margins, a church of those who are poor and dispossessed, a church of those who are suffering,” he said.
The Pope’s visit seems to align with those goals, he said.
He seems to be following the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ lead in pointing the finger at members of the Catholic community rather than the Church as a whole, Locklin noted.
As part of his reforms, Pope Francis has also sought to address clergy sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, he said.
In some ways, the pontiff has done that in Canada, acknowledging Thursday that sort of abuse. But he did not apologize for sexual abuse that happened at the residential schools, drawing criticism from some observers.
Tony Ritchie, who is involved with the Catholic Church in the Ottawa area, said he thinks of the apology as a sign of what’s to come.
“The apology is not the end point, it’s essentially the start of the journey towards reconciliation,” he said. “Those next steps are going to be the important ones.”
Ritchie said going forward, he thinks the Church should foster a closer relationship with its “Indigenous neighbours” — one that’s not about control.
St. Basil’s Parish in Ottawa, for example, has an Indigenous mass once a month, and Ritchie said other local churches are pushing their leadership to implement something similar.
“The Church needs to continuously evolve as society evolves,” he said. “You could get discouraged and leave the Church because you find it old-fashioned, or you can stay within the Church and try to make changes.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 30, 2022.
Nicole Thompson, The Canadian Press