The decision by Canada’s Roman Catholic bishops to issue an apology to Indigenous people was a kairos — or opportune — moment in the life of that church.
That’s the way Bishop William McGrattan of the Archdiocese of Calgary describes how the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) came to a unanimous agreement to say sorry for the role that church played in the residential school system.
“I believe God intervened in us coming together, with such a strong, committed message of this apology,” said McGrattan, the newly elected vice-president of the CCCB.
It was, he added, “an opportunity for us to speak with one voice, a moment not only for the Roman Catholic Church, but for all Canadians.”
The decision to make the apology took place at the annual CCCB plenary meeting of Canada’s 90 bishops from Sept. 20-24.
The plenary, conducted online and presided over by the now-former CCCB president Richard Gagnon, Archbishop of Winnipeg, was a “unique moment to give a strong message with one voice,” McGrattan said.
In making the apology, the bishops acknowledged the suffering Indigenous people experienced in Canada’s residential schools, and apologized for the roles many Catholic religious communities and dioceses played in suppressing Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality.
At the same time, they acknowledged “the grave abuses that were committed by some members of our Catholic community; physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual.”
For these things, the bishops expressed “unequivocally” apologized and expressed their “profound remorse.”
When asked what it meant to “unequivocally” apologize, McGrattan said that meant “no qualifications, no excuses, no rationalizations for this legacy and history of the church’s participation in the residential school system.”
The bishops also pledged to work with Indigenous people towards arranging a Papal visit.
“We heard loud and clear this is important to Indigenous people, and we want to convey to them we see the importance of this, too,” he said.
Although such a visit could be expensive, McGrattan said cost did not come up in the discussion and that it is “not the most important factor.”
McGrattan realizes not all Indigenous people will be satisfied with the apology.
“All we can do is offer it in humility and hope it is accepted and brings peace and healing,” he said, adding any future reconciliation efforts will be done together with Indigenous people, “not us telling them or directing them but listening to them.”
While the apology came from the bishops, McGrattan hopes Canadian Catholics will “see this as an opportunity to also pursue reconciliation and commit themselves to tangible ways of pursuing it.”
This includes donating to a new fundraising campaign that will be co-ordinated nationally, with all the funds raised directed to local projects in dioceses.
“It’s going to be a national effort with a national goal, but the distribution to be done locally with local accountability with Indigenous people,” he said, adding details would be released this week.
“I hope it will resonate with the Catholic faithful,” he added, noting other Canadians are welcome to participate.
Reflecting on the plenary discussion about the apology, McGrattan said it showed how “faith can unite us, can direct us doing what is right and just, even though sometimes we’ve failed in the past… I honestly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit.”
In a statement after the plenary, Archbishop Albert LeGatt of St. Boniface said “Reconciliation must come from the hearts of the faithful and of our priests, and from myself. We seek to give ourselves to reconciliation. That’s why our archdiocese is actively working to encourage all the faithful to educate themselves on the history of Indigenous-Non-Indigenous relations, and then live reconciliation by continuing to dialogue with Native people.”
In addition to other business at the plenary, the bishops elected a new president, Bishop Raymond Poisson of the diocese of Saint-Jérôme, Québec.
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg’s faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
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