Indian Residential Schools, the Catholic Church: Lessons & Some Concrete Steps

In the summer of 2021, the whole world watched in horror as the unmarked graves of hundreds of children were discovered near former Indian Residential Schools in Canada. These schools were run by the Catholic Church with the support of the Government of Canada.  At that time, 1800s to late 1900s, it was the policy of the Government of Canada to put children of indigenous peoples in these boarding schools. 

There is evidence that these schools were often in poor shape with little willingness by the Government to improve them. The discovery has inflicted wounds, triggered trauma as well as calls for accountability from the Government of Canada and the Catholic Church who ran the schools where these gravesites were found.

 There are many lessons from this tragedy for all of us:

1.            Beware of Hypocrisy 

We must be on guard that we are not living a daily life that is in opposition to the Word of God. The complicity of Christians in the maltreatment of Indigenous persons is not of Christ. These individuals were not living the Christianity they professed. Jesus had no patience for people who did not practice what they preached. He castigated anyone who caused scandal to innocent people. He said it was better to have a millstone tied on that person and that person be thrown into the sea! (Mt 18: 6-8)

2.            Truth and Reconciliation is a Process

Peace and trust between the Church and indigenous people in Canada will take time. Some steps were already being taken toward reconciliation including  compensation for survivors of these schools. However, these recent cases of the discovery of unmarked graves have inflicted fresh wounds that will take time and a lot of work on the part of both the Government and the Church to heal. Deep wounds heal slowly and only with the help of God. Therefore, prayer is essential in addition to the effort.

3.            Inculturation is Important

Mary the Mother of Jesus, appeared in Mexico centuries ago as an indigenous woman (Our Lady of Guadalupe). She was apparently more akin to a biracial person of both indigenous and Spanish ethnicities. She also spoke in the local indigenous language to the visionary, an indigenous Mexican by the name of Juan Diego. She dressed in the customary dress of pregnant women from Juan Diego’s indigenous culture.

 Our Lady brought the gospel of Christ using the language and customs of her interlocutor! And in this way, she converted millions of indigenous Mexicans to Christ. We must remember this always: that the Church of Christ is one that uses and should use the good things in every culture. Being Catholic is not about having one uniform ethnic culture. The only uniform culture is Christ-like behaviour which ought to be passed on to all peoples of the world including through inculturation. This is what God wants because it is a fulfilment of Psalm 72  which predicted that every nation on earth would adore the God of Israel.

Concrete Steps to Take as Individuals

4.            Do Not Be Defensive

Face the hard facts. Learn as much as you can about the history of indigenous peoples in Canada. Read from authors who are Indigenous to Canada. 

 While there were some people in the Church who tried to stop the abuse of indigenous peoples, these were evidently in the minority. Therefore, avoid making this point your first response. Know that the Church includes both Saints and sinners, both wheat and weeds. Therefore, any attempt to defend the Church must first acknowledge the facts – good and bad. 

5.            Listen

Listening is one of the most important responses at the individual level. Where appropriate, listening should lead to a sincere apology – even at the individual level. 

An institutional apology was made some years ago by Pope Benedict to several representatives of Indigenous peoples of Canada who met the Pope in Rome. There are calls for Pope Francis to also do one here in Canada. I suspect that he would do so if  invited/permitted to come by the Government of Canada (such visits require particular protocols of invitation). 

6.            Pray for Reconciliation

This is the most important work Catholics can do today on this very difficult matter. The pain that was caused by this history is very deep and can only be healed only by God and sincere efforts by the Church which are both based on deep consultation with indigenous peoples and their representatives. 

 As individuals, we can take the above steps and note the lessons but also pray without ceasing, asking for God’s hand in this process. Call on Our Lady of Guadalupe in particular for her help.


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