As my penitential pilgrimage continued at a distance from that of Pope Francis, I found myself thinking increasingly of another pilgrimage. In October 1992, about 200 people joined the Canadian Ecumenical Presence (CEP) in Santo Domingo. As I could find almost nothing on the internet, I thought I should share something here. CEP became an ecumenical educational exposure experience beyond compare.
We were not yet using language of reconciliation – and indeed it may be premature still: much truth-telling still needed! – but we were wrestling with colonialism and its devastation in company with Indigenous people, descendants of enslaved peoples brought by force from Africa, and all people who struggle for liberation from contemporary colonialism that presents itself as globalized capitalism, indebtedness, human-trafficking and imperialism.
It all began on the back of an envelope. I met for lunch with two ecumenical friends: Joe Mihevc, then the Toronto animator for the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, and Patti Talbot, then on the staff of the Canadian Churches’ Forum for Global Ministries. “The only paper we could find among the three of us to jot notes was an old envelope from my purse,” Patti recalled later.
Soon, we were joined by other friends: ecumenical activist and educator Betsy Anderson of the Latin American Working Group (LAWG); Suzanne Rumsey of LAWG and later the Inter-Church Committee on Human Rights in Latin America (ICCHRLA); Rosalee Bender who became our program staff coordinator; Juan Rivas, coordinator of the Dominican Republic Experience; and Joe Byrne from the Latin America Mission Program of the Diocese of Charlottetown.
From the time of the first CEP plan, the one drawn on the back of an envelope in a cafeteria, it had been our hope to be able to serve religious media by providing a relatively inexpensive place to stay, helping reporters get access to major events, and accompanying them in encounters with Dominicans who were working for change.
CEP participants who had media accreditation were able to attend some of the official CELAM events and news conferences. It was a question from a Mohawk radio producer, Eric Gabriel, that turned what might have been a series of carefully-staged news conferences into informative briefings: “Will the bishops’ conference apologize to native people, and if not, why not?” First, there was silence — a silence that is captured beautifully in the documentary which Vision-TV broadcast in December 1992. Then one of the bishops on the panel sputtered an incoherent and embarrassing response to this sensitive question. The fumble prompted the CELAM media office to plan a 90-minute briefing on the church’s role in Indigenous issues the following day, featuring clergy and lay people who were Indigenous or who worked with Indigenous people. A day later, a thorough briefing on the situation of women was offered.
Many people who heard the apologies offered by Pope Francis in Canada were disappointed that the apologies were worded in ways that expressed regret for the actions of certain people or “local Catholic institutions” – as if religious orders like the Oblates and Jesuits are not themselves global organizations.
Building on existing teaching, the apologies offered by Pope Francis could have gone further.
As my personal penitential pilgrimage continued, I came across a forceful definition of “social sin” – relevant because of the Catholic Church’s reluctance to say something definitive, like: “the church erred,” rather than just saying, “I’m sorry.”
The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church(2004), in paragraph 119, describes social sin this way: “The consequences of sin perpetuate the structures of sin…. These are obstacles and conditioning that go well beyond the actions and brief life span of the individual, and interfere also in theprocess of the development of peoples, the delay and slow pace of which must be judged in this light.”
The entire colonial project, including the residential schools, is grotesque interference in the “development of peoples.” (That phrase echoes the name of an influential 1967 encyclical by Paul VI, Populorum Progressio, inspirational to the creation of the many Catholic development organizations an in the formation of people like your scribe.)
Pope Francis should also have addressed the “Doctrine of Discovery.” Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who works with the Religion News Service, wrote after the visit that the pope’s remarks in a news conference during the flight back to Rome revealed that he had not been properly briefed for the visit. Francis said he had not thought to use the term “genocide” to describe the effects of the Indian residential schools system, but agreed that it was “true.”
And he said he was confused by the phrase “doctrine of discovery.” He should have been briefed and been prepared to address the issue, persistently raised by Indigenous people because of the lasting legacy of 15th-century papal teaching. Even if those teachings were abrogated by Pope Paul III’s edict in 1537, their accumulated impact influenced U.S. and Canadian law and government policy. The TRC Call to Action 45 rejects the doctrine of discovery and calls for a new Royal Proclamation of Reconciliation to be issued by the Crown that fully honours Nation-to-Nation principles.
To be fair, the doctrine-of-discovery phrase is not used as commonly in Latin America as in North America to describe the complicity of church and state in the subjection of the Indigenous peoples of the hemisphere. It doesn’t appear, for example, in a volume edited by philosopher-historian Enrique Dussel, The Church in Latin America, 1492-1992 (Orbis, 1992) – although the various papal bulls (edicts) that gave rise to the concept are described.
In my experience, what is talked about more are impacts of colonialism, the role of the colonial state in managing Christian missions (royal patronage, power to appoint bishops, etc.), and resistance exemplified by (among others) a 1511 homily by Antonio de Montesinos to settlers in Santo Domingo (“Tell me, by what right or justice do you hold these Indians in such cruel and horrible slavery?”) or the first bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de Las Casas, who argued for decades on behalf of Indigenous peoples. Indeed, much of what we know about the impact of the colonialism on the original peoples of the Americas in the 16th century is from what he wrote in his History of the Indies, published in 1561. In his long life, he was able to correct errors: among them, failure to denounce the enslavement of Africans. He later advocated that all slavery be abolished.
In Dussel’s introduction, he describes “the church of the poor” as already distinct from both the colonial church and the church of the criollos (descendants of Europeans born in the Americas). “There was not a single year in the seventeenth century that did not see a rebellion of natives, blacks or mestizos….” (p.7). The criollo-led independence movements of the early nineteenth century did not advance their liberation, and resistance continues to this day.
Next: Santo Domingo in October 1992: 500 years of resistance
Through the six days of the pope’s “Penitential Pilgrimage,” I mostly refrained from comment about the visit. It was best, I felt, that people hear the voices of residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, along with the voice of Pope Francis. I made my own penitential pilgrimage, albeit without travelling far. I am humbled as always by the voices of survivors and their families.
Folks who know me know that I have deep roots in two churches: the Roman Catholic Church and The United Church of Canada. As time goes on, I feel ever more disinclined to choose between them. I stand among them with others as an ecumenical Christian, and among other believers and all people of good will as we discern good ways forward together.
Here begins a three-part series of reflections (accompanied by many links to other articles and documents) from my virtual pilgrimage. Some of what follows is drawn from events of those late July days and other parts come from my reporting of four of Pope John Paul II’s visits (Canada in 1984, the Dominican Republic in 1984 and 1992, and Mexico in 1999), as well as my life as a pilgrim working and travelling between Canada, Latin America and the Caribbean since 1983.
In my nomadic childhood (which involved sojourns in three provinces before I was four and in yet another after I turned ten), we would occasionally visit relatives in Wetaskwin and Camrose, driving north on Highway 2A through Maskwacis – known in those days to us settler folk as Hobbema. This was in the 1960s and early 70s, and we hadn’t a clue about the Ermineskin Indian Residential School (ERS) that operated there from 1895 to 1975.
I began my virtual pilgrimage by learning more about the school. Many students were from the Ermineskin Cree Nation, and students came as well from the other three Maskwacis bands: Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and Montana First Nation – and from farther away too. ERS was one of the largest residential schools in Canada. In 1956, enrolment peaked at 263 students.
It was begun by two religious communities: the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI) and the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin (SASV). The sisters left in 1934, and the Oblates gave up management of the school in 1955 and of the student residence in 1969 when the federal government took over the entire complex.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has compiled stories of what went on there.
One of the leaders whose words seemed to press my conscience was Natan Obed, the leader of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami – the political organization that represents 65,000 Inuit people across Inuit Nunangat (lands and waters in regions known as the Nunavut territory, Nunavik in northern Québec, Nunatsiavut in Labrador, and the Inuvialuit Settlement Region in NWT). In a conversation with Tanya Talaga, he said, “I may have been naive to think that the institution could come here and apologize in the fullest capacity it possibly can, without the accompanying religious element that ultimately is at odds with the very purpose of the visit.” (I was disappointed that the pope did not immerse himself more fully in Indigenous ceremony; instead, Indigenous people were again immersed in Catholic ceremony. I was appalled by the use of Latin in the mass at the Commonwealth Stadium: a friend said it seemed like conservatives in the church had set out to “sabotage” the pope’s visit.)
After hearing the apology in Maskwacis, Obed told a television reporter that one of the challenges for Indigenous people has been precisely where to seek justice among the religious orders and congregations, bishops and their dioceses, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), and the Vatican.
I understand that from outside the Catholic Church, it looks monolithic and pyramidal. And as you contend with it, you come to understand that a variety of perspectives and relative levels of autonomy co-exist among the “Catholic entities” (the phrase used during the residential schools settlement negotiations among churches and government). According to the CCCB, about 16 of 70 Catholic dioceses, as well as three dozen Catholic religious communities, were associated with residential schools.
This has resulted in several different apologies from the Catholic entities (dating back to 1991) and diverse responses to demands for release of documents. This is also why it was necessary for the pope, who represents the unity of the church, to apologise here. (Apologies from other churches and governments are listed here.)
Next: The church, systemic injustice, social sin and the “doctrine of discovery”