Some Catholics say it’s not easy to reconcile their faith with what they see as a lackluster apology from the pope for the horrors church-run residential schools inflicted on indigenous children, but for many, the process involves trying to change the institution, instead of abandoning it.
The pontiff’s “penitential pilgrimage” across Canada saw him apologize for the actions of “so many Christians”, but some say Pope Francis should have done more to acknowledge that the Catholic Church itself was guilty of abuses at the facility.
“It’s a challenge to one’s faith, because the pope is a spiritual leader, and he is my spiritual leader. And he chose to use language that doesn’t take full responsibility, as he could have done,” said Paolo De Buono, a Catholic teacher in Toronto.
“So it makes me feel ashamed and concerned that the organization that I form is suffering even more by not issuing a full apology.”
Early Saturday morning on the drive back to the Vatican, the pope used a word he did not use while on Canadian soil: genocide. He agreed that the abuses Indigenous Peoples faced by being forced to attend residential schools amounted to genocide.
However, he still did not go so far as to acknowledge that the Catholic Church itself was responsible.
De Buono said he would have expected Pope Francis to focus more on the “collective role of the Church” rather than “what some people did.”
It’s a common criticism of the apology, even from those it was addressed to: Native Americans who were sent to residential schools and those dealing with intergenerational trauma stemming from separation from family members and repression of their cultures.
But like many Catholics, de Buono said he hopes to change the institution from within, rather than abandon 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 is hopeful more Catholics will take that course.
“The need for the disappointment of the visit is that people are going to say, OK, that wasn’t what we expected. Now it’s up to us as Canadian Catholics to do better,” said Locklin, who is an intern. Catholic.
That kind of local responsibility is somewhat in line with Pope Francis’ approach to leadership, he said. Francis tends to advocate “synodality,” which gives more autonomy to national or regional episcopal conferences.
It’s one of the ways Pope Francis has sought to reform the Church since becoming its leader in 2013, Locklin said, alongside efforts to change the way the institution is viewed.
“(He) is trying to reshape the imagination of the Catholic Church to be very much a church of the margins, a church of the poor and dispossessed, a church of the suffering,” he said.
The pope’s visit appears to align with those goals, he said.
It appears to be following the example of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops 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 a way, the pontiff has done just that in Canada, acknowledging that kind of abuse on Thursday. But he has not apologized for the sexual abuse that occurred in residential schools, drawing criticism from some observers.
Tony Ritchie, who is involved with the Catholic Church in the Ottawa area, said he sees the apology as a sign of things to come.
“The apology is not the end point, it is essentially the beginning of the journey towards reconciliation,” he said. “Those next steps are going to be the important ones.”
Ritchie said that going forward, he believes the Church should foster a closer relationship with its “indigenous neighbors,” one that isn’t 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 leaders to implement something similar.
“The Church needs to continually evolve as society evolves,” he said. “You can get discouraged and leave the Church because you find it outdated, or you can stay within the Church and try to make changes.”
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 30, 2022.