Dead faith of the living on display

Papal Mass shows Church remains deaf to residential school survivors

Glen Argan

Will the Catholic Church ever get it right? After listening to Pope Francis’ homily in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on July 26, I now think the lack of understanding of the damage Church institutions did through the residential school system is so profound that we are almost beyond hope. The lack of empathy for how residential school survivors and their descendants will hear the pope’s words beggars belief.

The pope spoke to tens of thousands of people on the Feast of Sts. Anne and Joachim, the grandparents of Jesus. The homily he gave would have been lovely in some circumstances, one where residential school survivors had not been specially invited to be part of the congregation. But messaging is all about context. And in this context, the pope’s message fell with a clang that could not help but reverberate discordantly across our land.

“Our grandparents left a unique mark on us by their way of living; they gave us dignity and confidence in ourselves and others,” Pope Francis said. “They bestowed on us something that can never be taken from us and that, at the same time, allows us to be unique, original and free.”

How would any reasonable person expect those words to fall upon the ears of those who were ripped away from their parents’ arms, perhaps by a local priest, and spirited off to a school where they rarely saw their parents and where their traditions, language and spirituality were denigrated? Would they not think what their grandparents tried to bestow upon them was in fact taken from them? Would they not think they were denied the possibility of being unique, original and free?

Surely, this is what Canadians have been discussing over and over for at least 15 years.

Then, the pope went on to his second point: “In addition to being children of a history that needs to be preserved, we are authors of a history yet to be written. . . . This is the mystery of human life: we are all someone’s children, begotten and shaped by another, but as we become adults, we too are called to give life, to be a father, mother or grandparent to someone else.”

Yes, as adults we pass on what was given to us. But for a residential school survivor, history has been stripped away. What history will one write when one has little personal history outside of a hostile institution established precisely to take away that history? When we look at today’s young Indigenous people who quit our school systems, populate our prisons and take their own lives at rates which vastly outstrip those of the settler population, we should see that there is no mystery. The negative effects of the residential schools are passed on from generation to generation.

Pope Francis spoke of our ancestors as the “school where we first learned how to love.” But if a child does not learn to love from their parents because they were taken away from them, how does that child become fully human? The first years of life are integral to a child’s learning to love. Residential school students sometimes blamed their parents for abandoning them because they did not know that it was the Church and the government which ripped them out of their homes.

Then, after the pope said traditionalism is the dead faith of the living, the Eucharistic Prayer is prayed in Latin. Well, he said it – “the dead faith of the living.”

Although some may not agree, Pope Francis began his Canadian tour on a high note with his heartfelt apology at Maskwacis the day before the Edmonton Mass. There, he asked forgiveness “for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated . . . in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation . . . , which culminated in the system of residential schools.”

Did the pope overnight forget about these “projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation”? Did he forget why he came to Canada? I hardly think so.

Pope Francis has been a great pope so far, challenging the self-important clerical culture which has distorted the living out of the Gospel among Jesus’ followers. Yet, there he was on Tuesday, surrounded by a sea of men decked out in their new vestments purchased especially for the papal visit. Mere blocks away, the homeless live on the street or in tents in alleyways. Power or service?

The fruit of clericalism is an institution which prioritizes power over service. It was the priority on power – a distorted notion of spreading the Gospel by eradicating traditional cultures – which drew the Church into its involvement in residential schools.

The Church is making noises about leaving clericalism behind and becoming more like Jesus. But on a sunny Tuesday morning in Edmonton, it revealed how very far we have to go.

(Glen Argan was editor of the Edmonton-based Western Catholic Reporter for 30 years.)

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