“All these things are contrary to the gospel of Jesus Messiah,” said the pope in the apostle’s palace. “For the shameful conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in apologizing.”
Francis also reiterated a commitment he made last year to visit Canada, where he said he “could better” show his “closeness.”
The pope has been under renewed pressure to apologize for the church’s role in the residential school system after in the past year a number of Native American communities said a ground-penetrating radar revealed evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near former school sites.
Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 native children were separated from their families – often by force – to attend government-run institutions, set up to assimilate them into what the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission said. The 2015 report was “Cultural Genocide.”
The report said children were punished for practicing their traditions or speaking their languages, and that many suffered various forms of abuse. He identified thousands of children who died in schools, including disease, malnutrition, suicide or while trying to escape. Some were buried in unmarked graves.
The last school closed in the 1990s. Most of them were run by Catholic elements. The Anglican, United and Presbyterian Churches of Canada, which ran several schools, apologized for their role. But while some Catholic entities and local church leaders have apologized, Francis and his predecessors did not do so before Friday.
The Pope’s apology on Canadian soil was among the 94 calls for action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
In his remarks, Francis said that “it is chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, rob people of their cultural identity, cut off their roots and consider all the social and personal efforts that this continues to involve: unresolved. Traumas that have become intergenerational traumas.”
Francis met this week separately with representatives from Métis, Inuit and First Nations. The delegation, whose visit was delayed because of the plague, was made up of indigenous leaders, the elderly, teenagers and survivors of residential schools, who shared stories about their experiences at school and the influences that still hurt their communities.
Representatives also pressured Francis to release records that could shed light on the identities of children who died in schools or disappeared. Some have also criticized the church for failing to meet its obligations under a 2006 class action lawsuit with residential school survivors.
Others called on the Vatican to abolish 15th-century Pope bulls that had sanctified the so-called doctrine of revelation, which were used to justify colonization in the Americas.
As he often does, Francis lamented on Friday the “many forms of political, ideological and economic colonization” that “still exist in the world, driven by greed and thirst for profit, with little concern for peoples, their history and traditions, and a common creative house.” He did not cancel the Pope’s bulls.
During a visit this week to a native community in British Columbia, which last year said it had uncovered evidence of 93 unmarked possible graves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau – who personally addressed Francis asking for an apology in 2017 – said he faced this “terrible” episode history demanded a response From the Pope.
The federal government issued an official apology for its role in the residential school system in 2006.
Francis did not give a date for his visit to Canada, but joked that it probably would not be in the winter. He said he drew “joy” from the representatives’ admiration for St. Anne and “hoped” to be with them on her holiday. It’s July.
Amanda Colta reported from Toronto.