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One of the most consequential conversations I ever had was with my grandmother- whom most of her younger grandchildren aﬀectionately called ‘Kokum’ – the Cree word for grandma – within my first couple of years of seminary studies.
I had known by then for quite some time that she was educated in the Residential School System and that it had been a source of indescribable pain. What had only more recently become known to me then was how intricately involved churches were in their administration. Including the Roman Catholic Church: My church.
It filled me with some dread to even ask her this question, but on a visit to the farm once, I delicately broached the topic with her as we peeled potatoes: “Kokum, based on your experience of residential school, does it oﬀend you or worry you that I might become a priest someday?”
She dropped the potato and peeler and, closing her eyes with what I first thought was a painful look on her face, grabbed my hand and said: “Oh my boy, nothing would make me more proud. I have known many good nuns and priests, and I know you would be one of those.”
It is impossible for me to describe the power and influence that woman exercised in the lives of her immense family. Her matriarchy presided over us with dignity, virtue, joy and mercy.
Though never a Catholic herself, she was first and foremost a devoted Christian and student of the Word of God. She overcame more suﬀering in her 99 years and 11 months of life than anyone in our modern times could even fathom confronting. And she did so, by her own unapologetic declaration, because of her faith in Christ.
That faith, however, was not imposed upon her by residential school teachers. That faith was handed down to her through three generations of living a truly reconciled life of Indigenous heritage and Christian confession. Her great grandfather was one of the first ordained Natives in what was still not-yet- Confederated Canada, Rev. Henry Bird Steinhauer. Despite her grandson, by God’s providence, ending up a Catholic priest, she remarked that we already had a tradition of ordained ministry in our family.
These are the experiences and perspectives I bring with me into the present circumstances within which we find ourselves as another controversy over the residential school system has surfaced in recent weeks. I have remained entirely and intentionally silent on this topic in my public and social media presence because I have needed time to reflect and pray.
The Scriptures we have heard today propose two very important realities that have not been and never will be portrayed in the conventional public discourse on this topic. Quite fittingly, those two realities happen to be truth and reconciliation.
Pontius Pilate famously asked our Lord to His face, “What is Truth?” The irony lay in that Jesus Himself is the truth and Pilate was simply blind to it. Such blindness, however, was not only the problem of Pontius Pilate. In varying ways and at diﬀerent times, we are all blind to the truth; blind to Christ Himself.
The pursuit of truth, then, is the most noble human endeavour. To pursue truth is to pursue Christ because He alone is the fullness of truth. Therefore, by extension, He alone can be the judge of truth. We are capable of frail, human eﬀorts at this but all truth as we perceive it must be subject to His final judgment.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul reminds the Corinthians, “…all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what he or she has done…”
Our Lord adjudicates such matters fully and exclusively because only He knows the mind and heart. Hence, one of the greatest challenges of our time is to learn the distinction between judging objective actions or outcomes from intentions.
We are capable of assessing a course of action according to the objective standards of what is right and just, but where we see a departure from such standards – especially in history – it will not be automatically obvious why such a departure occurred. Christ surely knows that, but we, sometimes many years removed, are not guaranteed such accuracy in our interpretations.
Much of what drives the continued pain in confronting the history of the treatment of our First Nations peoples in general and residential schools specifically is the continuous imputation of motive to those whose actions may well seem questionable. It is frequently remarked, and I have even seen it depicted artistically, that wicked priests and nuns (to say nothing of the adherents to other Christian denominations) cruelly pried children from their mothers and fathers’ grasps for the sole purpose of abusively disabusing them of their heritage.
That children were taken from their parents is an objective fact and it is objectively lamentable. To simultaneously suppose it was unilaterally motivated by hatred is not possible. On this point, Prime Minister Trudeau suggests the Church is failing to accept responsibility for participating in these atrocities. Yet I wonder if he is readily prepared to acknowledge the rate at which Indigenous children continue to be apprehended by government funded social services from their families and reservations to this very day?
This dynamic of conflating objective action with presumed motive, I am convinced, remains the single largest obstacle to the work of reconciliation in which many sincerely interested parties on all sides have been engaging for decades.
While interviewing Cardinal Collins last weekend, Rosemary Barton of the CBC suggested that the failure of the Catholic Church to turn over unnamed and unspecified “documents” that are allegedly missing prevents truth from being known and thereby halting eﬀorts at reconciliation. Perhaps it could be said that media correspondents such as herself and many others like her, by means of misguided or incomplete reportage are, in fact, those guilty of obfuscating the truth and subsequently dismantling eﬀorts at reconciliation.
Fundamentally, reconciliation must be distinguished from forgiveness. These are not interchangeable terms. One is fully capable of forgiving of his or her own accord because forgiveness is an act of the will; a free decision to release someone from your debt. This means that even independent of the remorse of the oﬀending party, the victim may choose to forgive – not to let the oﬀender oﬀ the hook of justice but to set oneself free from the bitter prison of resentment.
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Forgiveness is always possible without reconciliation. Why reconciliation matters, though, is that the coming back together again of multiple sides of a dispute is a far greater sign of the Kingdom of God than a collection of people who have privately forgiven others. And this is why our Church has been so unequivocally committed to reconciliation with our native brothers and sisters for long before the federal government or the media took any interest.
The agricultural parables our Lord used today point to the silent seed sown in good soil. “The kingdom of God is as if a man would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, without his knowing how.” This is how the Kingdom of God advances, like the hidden and humble seed which does its work beneath the surface but, with time, produces undeniable fruits.
The same could be said for the work of reconciliation. It is beyond my competence to address the merits, for example, of Pope Francis coming to Canada to issue an apology on behalf of the universal Church for residential schools. That would certainly be a profound and attention-grabbing gesture. What I fail to see, however, is why such a gesture is regarded as an essential step on the work of reconciliation?
Verbal apologies, as important as they are, and diminished in value as frequently as they are repeated, are only words. For Christians, like my Kokum and three generations of her ancestors before her, we are believers not in words only but in the Word becoming flesh. We are saved by Christ’s holy incarnation. An apology uttered is nothing compared to an apology lived.
Nothing I ever could say would suﬃce for the suﬀering inflicted upon my beloved Kokum in her residential school experience so instead, I sought to live it out. In God’s providence, my first two years of priestly ministry were spent in a parish which served the mission of Our Lady of Peace on the Tsuu T’ina Nation. There, it became my mission to simply and discreetly in-car-nate the work of reconciliation.
This was not something novel that I undertook. I merely participated in a long lineage of Christian missionaries who believe all nations, including our First Nations, deserve to hear the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and to encounter Him in those who dare to represent Him.
That is the work of reconciliation. That is the only hope of pursuing a path of healing and peace in our country. That is the work our Church has done before, during and after the inexcusable mistakes of the residential school system. And that is the work, I hope and pray, honoured my Kokum in this life and so honours her now in the eternal life, I believe, she now lives in Christ.
Fr. Cristino Bouvette preached this homily last Sunday at St. Francis Xavier Chaplaincy, part of Calgary’s St. Mary’s Cathedral where he is vocations director and a university chaplain. Photo by Father Cristino Bouvette.
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