Pictured above- Pope Francis prays at a residential school cemetery
Pope Francis’ trip to Canada this week began in a cemetery. The cemetery of an Indian residential school. From the 1870’s until the 1970’s the Canadian government maintained a system of boarding schools that First Nations children were required to attend. There they were forced to give up their native language, dress, and culture to better “fit in” to Canadian society. Along the way there was physical and sexual abuse. And children who died were not returned to their families because of the cost but buried at the school. Recently hundreds of unmarked graves have been discovered at these schools.They were almost all run by churches. More than 60% of them by the Catholic church. So it was that Francis began his trip praying in a cemetery filled with children.
In recent years it is not unusual for a pope to apologize, St John Paul II did it numerous times in his years. But for an entire papal trip to be built around apologizing? Unheard of. And Francis is apologizing repeatedly, at various indigenous sites around Canada. “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you,” he said.
So what exactly is Francis responsible for in this whole incredibly sad saga? Nothing really. Not personally. But he is showing a very deep sense of communal responsibility. Something that is a bit of a foreign concept these days. We tend to think of guilt and fault in individual terms. But this is a communal sin, a sin of us, of the church. It is something to ponder as the pope makes his way around Canada, how we can each share in the guilt of the church as a whole, or of society as a whole. Why it takes the pope to apologize.
And while this is a visit to Canada’s First Nations, it’s worth remembering that the Canadian residential schools were modeled on America’s federal residential schools. Our schools were operated by churches as well. Many were Catholic. Unmarked graves are being found at them too. And they were started much earlier than the Canadian schools. The very first was The Choctaw Academy, opened in 1825 by the Baptist Mission Society near Lexington Kentucky. It stayed in operation until shortly after Kentucky’s Native Americans were removed to west of the MIssissippi River.