The pope is looking increasingly frail. During his trip to Canada, he cut a lonely figure and, on the papal flight back to Rome, he was forced to address his diminishing strength, stating that he would need to cut down on such journeys.
This trip was one of attempted reconciliation with an indigenous community ripped apart and hurt by past actions. It was also a trip to a country where anti-Catholic sentiment has been rising, often aided and abetted by hostile media and posturing politicians.
It is estimated that approximately 150,000 indigenous children were sent to state-funded Christian schools until the 1970s to reduce the influence of their culture and integrate them into the cultural mainstream. His apology was clear:
“I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.”
The words of the pope were poignant: “The memory of those children is indeed painful; it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect.”
Nonetheless, this “penitential pilgrimage” was not a one-sided effort. On the contrary, he urged his listeners “to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation”.
The shortcomings cannot be pinned solely on the Church. The state’s role has been largely ignored; the Canadian federal government funded these schools while the different Churches staffed them with the necessary personnel. Moreover, one must also keep in mind the pedagogical understanding of the time which prized assimilation and integration over everything else. Nonetheless, the pope’s visit was necessary and essential.
It reiterated that the Church is also a pilgrim Church on a journey of faith. On this journey, it may sometimes stumble and fall. It may also get tired and stall. Nonetheless, it must continue and ensure that the encounters it makes on this journey are lasting and meaningful.
In this sense, the pilgrim Church also needs to be humble. It needs to admit that it made mistakes. If and when possible, it must make reparations for such errors but it must not allow itself to retreat from engaging with the wider world because of this.
On the other hand, it must also avoid the trap of excessive self-flagellation or self-pity since this runs contrary to introspection and discernment, which the Church requires in bucketloads. This will be a greater challenge, primarily because many are prone to remind the Church of its past mistakes every time it makes a statement that jars with the prevailing culture.
A humbler pilgrim Church should reach out more. It cannot be bogged down by its past mistakes. Instead, it seeks to follow a path of truth, justice and reconciliation. Therefore, the Church must be willing to admit to mistakes, make reparations if possible and move forward regardless of the prevailing culture.
This also applies to the Church in Malta. While it has apologised often about past mistakes, it often encounters a public who is still keen on reminding them of it. However, this must not stop it from speaking truth to power or being more introspective about its mission.
This seems to be the message Francis imparted in Canada.
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