The release of the final report of the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) on the residential schools system spoke of the need to move from "apology to action." Yet there was apparently some unfinished business on the apology front, as the TRC called upon the "the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children ... to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada."
It is puzzling why the commissioners think an apology would be a good idea. Or, more precisely, why they think it would be a good idea again.
On April 29, 2009 — before the TRC got going, it should be noted — Pope Benedict XVI met with a delegation of aboriginal Canadians he had invited to the Vatican at the request of the bishops of Canada. On the topic of residential schools, Benedict expressed "his sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church and he offered his sympathy and prayerful solidarity," according to the Vatican press summary of the meeting.
The delegation was led by national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Phil Fontaine, a former residential school student himself. Calling the meeting the historic "final piece" of the confession of sin by the various churches, he told CBC News that it should "close the book" on the issue of church apologies.
The TRC has decided to open the book again. It wouldn't be difficult of course to have Pope Francis offer an apology. Indeed, papal apologies are not hard to come by at all. Luigi Accatoli, a long-time Vatican correspondent wrote a book in 1998 entitled, When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpas of John Paul II. He counted 98 such requests for forgiveness, and that was more than 10 years before the Benedict-Fontaine summit. So another apology could certainly be routinely issued, but that is precisely the problem. If the 2009 meeting, carefully prepared as it was after much collaboration and consultation, didn't mean what everyone thought it meant, then why would a repeat achieve anything significant? To the contrary, the repeat would seem perfunctory and given under pressure, and the sincerity of the original would be called into question. Reconciliation requires that apologies be offered. They also need to be accepted.
To ignore the 2009 apology is a shame, for on that occasion Fontaine delivered a magnificent, moving and magnanimous address to the pope that stands as a model for thinking about the relationship of the Catholic Church to aboriginal Canadians.
"The Catholic Church has always played a significant role in the history of our peoples. Priests and nuns were some of the first Europeans to arrive on our shores," Fontaine began. "They acted as intermediaries in treaty negotiations and interpretation and often expressed their serious reservations about the federal government's intentions in the implementation of the treaties. Many embraced our languages with enthusiasm, wrote them down and created dictionaries, bibles and books of prayers that we still use to this day. The Catholics recognized the deep spirituality of our peoples and introduced a faith to which many indigenous people devoutly adhere."