Pope Francis’ pilgrimage of penance: A step on the nonviolent journey

The following piece was written for Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service by Ken Butigan, a member of the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative executive committee.

Today I am here in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still open wounds.

I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry.

I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated…in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation…which culminated in the system of residential schools.

Pope Francis, Maskwacis, July 25, 2022

With these words the pope’s historic “pilgrimage of penance” to the Indigenous peoples of Canada began, addressing “some 2,000 residential school survivors, chiefs, leaders, elders, knowledge keepers and youth from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities in Maskwacis Park (“Bear hills”, in the Cree language).”

From July 25 through July 29 Pope Francis came face-to-face with the living legacy of centuries of systemic violence, distilled in the unspeakable horror of children torn from their communities and robbed of their culture, all blessed and carried out by the Church.

Alighting in Edmonton, Pope Francis first met with the Métis and Inuit First Nation people at Maskwacis. This international apostolic visit, the pope’s 37th since 2013, included traditional papal events in stadiums and meetings with religious and political leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. But the heart of this voyage was smaller gatherings and encounters, especially with members of communities suffering from the ever-fresh trauma of “cultural destruction and forced assimilation.”

“Walking Together” was the visit’s official theme. It echoed the more unwieldy Church term “synodality”— literally “walking together,” from the Greek—that has gained currency across Catholicism since the launch last October of a global two-year conversation called the “Synod on Synodality,” where Catholics on every continent are “walking with” one another in imagining the future direction of the Church.

The pope’s visit to Canada, though, was less about shoring up the institution than about its leadership coming to grips with the Church’s sins.

Less about envisioning a robust future than doing the hard work of peering into the past’s abyss, this encounter was a reckoning with the violent disregard of the infinite worth of the estimated 150,000 children whose very identities were laid siege to by systems privileging whiteness and the European paradigm.

Pope Francis’ journey was about listening, remembering, and, as the pope often says, “being close.” Being close to one another. Being close to the living and the dead. And being close to the realities of trauma inflicted over five centuries.

These steps were needed before “walking together” in its deepest sense could happen. After all, can people “walk together” when inter-generational cultural and spiritual shackles remain tightly in place?

The call to nonviolence

The events of these past days in Canada can perhaps be fruitfully regarded as one mutual step on the journey of active and liberating nonviolence.

Nonviolence is a spirituality, a way of life, a method for change, and a universal ethic that integrates the rejection of violence with the power of truth and love. It opens a way forward beyond the traditional scripts of conflict: avoidance, accommodation, aversion, aggression, or attack. It challenges the logic of violence (power-over) with a qualitatively different kind of logic (power-with).  Or, as Phillip Bradley of NonviolenceWorks puts it succinctly:

  • Violence is justice for some (achieved by promoting the lie + concealing the truth)

  • Nonviolence is justice for all (achieved by revealing the lie + promoting the truth)

One of the crucial dimensions of Pope Francis’ papacy has been his efforts, through word and deed, to recover and advance this robust understanding of nonviolence.  In a range of documents, interviews and statements, the pope has called the Church back to Jesus’ nonviolence and the world to a more nonviolent future.

But even more than his words, the pope’s actions have often dramatized the power of nonviolence, from gestures of unity and solidarity (washing the feet of detained immigrants and the incarcerated during Holy Thursday services) to making a surprise visit to a refugee camp in Greece (where he arranged to bring Muslim families to Rome); from a call for global prayer and action to prevent an aerial bombing campaign to kissing the feet of South Sudanese politicians to spur their stalled peace process. Many of his international trips have also been “pilgrimages of peace” that can regarded as “nonviolent actions,” including his visit to the war zone in the Central Africa Republic and his apostolic journey to Iraq.

But Pope Francis’ journey to Canada was different.

Here he came, not as a pro-active peacemaker, but as a penitent. Here the pope took up another key aspect of nonviolence: recognizing and confessing violence, seeking to join survivors in transforming and resolving the injury, recognizing the need for making amends, asking for forgiveness, and hoping to foster repair and reconciliation.

This journey of nonviolence, though, was not Pope Francis’ alone. It was first and foremost the initiative of the Indigenous people of Canada. The pope’s actions were a response to a longer and broader nonviolent pilgrimage of transformation and healing led with determination and relentless persistence by the survivors.

The long-time movement to address Church complicity in the cultural decimation of Indigenous communities in Canada had culminated in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015, which, according to reporter Nicole Winfield, “documented institutional blame and specifically recommended a papal apology delivered on Canadian soil. Trudeau traveled to the Vatican in 2017 to appeal to Francis to apologize, but the pontiff felt ‘he could not personally respond to the call, Canadian bishops said at the time.’” This, in spite of the fact that Francis had already in 2015 apologized in Bolivia for colonial-era crimes against Indigenous people and had hosted a Vatican conference on the Amazon that highlighted injustices against Indigenous communities throughout South America.

“It was only when our children were beginning to be found in mass graves, garnering international attention, that light was brought to this painful period of our history,” said Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe in Maskwacis, as reported by Winfield.

Responding to this discovery, Peter Smith reports that “Pope Francis agreed to meet with a Canadian Indigenous delegation this past spring and apologized ‘for the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church’ involved with the schools. He also heeded survivors’ calls to make an apology on Canadian soil,” leading to this past week’s journey.

What transpired in Canada can be viewed as a nonviolent process led by the Indigenous communities across the country, which called on the Church, symbolized by Pope Francis’s presence, to expose the lie of racism and colonialism and to promote the truth of the sacredness and dignity of all peoples.

Phil Fontaine, an Indigenous Canadian leader, who served three terms as National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, reflected on the pope’s journey and what it might encourage: “I think it’s important to keep in mind that healing and reconciliation can be best achieved by forgiveness, and here we had the Holy Father before us seeking forgiveness. We have to also bring us to a place where we can forgive. So, for some, that’s a very difficult step to take; for others they’ve taken that step and probably took it years ago, and that made it possible for that person to carry on the process of healing and reconciliation.”

Criticized by commentators that he hadn’t used the word “genocide” during his trip, Pope Francis on his flight back to Rome said, “It’s true, I didn’t use the word because it didn’t come to my mind, but I described the genocide and asked for forgiveness, pardon for this activity that is genocidal. For example, I condemned this too: taking away children, changing culture, changing mentality, changing traditions, changing a race, let’s put it that way, an entire culture. Yes, genocide is a technical word. I didn’t use it because it didn’t come to my mind, but I described it… It’s true, yes, yes, it’s genocide.”

Genocide in the United States

While the focus has been on the systemic violence in Canada, there is no possibility of escaping engagement with the genocide perpetrated by the United States against Indigenous people, including in cooperation with the Catholic Church.

On May 11, the U.S. Department of the Interior released a report “detailing decades of atrocities committed against Native American communities through 408 federally-run boarding schools.”

The Catholic Mobilizing Network summarizes the findings:

“The comprehensive review, announced by Interior Secretary Deb Haaland in June 2021, sought to uncover the loss of human life and the lasting consequences of residential Indian boarding schools. The primary goals of the investigation were to identify boarding school facilities and sites, the locations of known and possible student burial sites at or near school facilities, and the identities and Tribal affiliations of children interred at such locations. Secretary Haaland noted that all of these aims were  part of a national effort to ‘address the intergenerational impact of Indian boarding schools to shed light on the unspoken traumas of the past, no matter how hard it will be.’ The report identified 408 federal Indian boarding schools run between 1819 and 1969 in which Native children were not only forcibly removed from their parents, [they] endured a multitude of abuses and indignities. The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition reports that approximately 80 federal Indian boarding schools were run by Catholic institutions or religious orders —significantly more than the number of schools run by any other religious denomination. …The Native American boarding school policy fundamentally violated this vision of justice, breaking familial ties and breaching cultural traditions within Native communities. To begin to address these injustices and move forward in a spirit of right relationship will require honest recognition and meaningful acts of repair on behalf of the Church to heal and transform historical harms and their ongoing impacts.”

It is time for the U.S. Catholics and others to join as allies in this nonviolent movement to “expose the lie and reveal the truth.”  For information and advocacy options, visit The National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition, an organization that formed in 2011 to discuss the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the critical need for such a process in the United States.

Moving forward

Pope Francis’ apology was not the first time that he and his predecessors have apologized for the wrongs of the Church. As the book Advancing Nonviolence in the Church and the World reports, “Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have made a series of public apologies and sought forgiveness. In 1985 in Cameroon, Pope John Paul II apologized to black Africans for the involvement of white Christians in the slave trade. In 1998, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for the Church failing to take decisive action to stop the Holocaust. In 2015 at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Bolivia, Pope Francis apologized for the Church’s role in colonialism and its devastating impact on Indigenous nations, saying, ‘I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offence of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.’ On the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Pope Francis expressed his profound sadness, and that of the Holy See and of the Church, for the genocide against the Tutsis and implored ‘God’s forgiveness for the sins and failings of the Church and its members,’ among whom priests and religious men and women who ‘succumbed to hatred and violence, betraying their own evangelical mission,’ stressing that the failings of that period ‘have disfigured the face of the Church’ and expressing the hope that his gesture may ‘contribute to a “purification of memory and may promote, in hope and renewed trust, a future of peace.”’ In 2016, Pope Francis offered a short, unscripted apology for the persecution of gay people as part of a more general apology, saying, ‘I believe that the Church not only should apologize to the person who is gay whom it has offended, but has to apologize to the poor, to exploited women, to children exploited for labor; it has to ask forgiveness for having blessed many weapons.’ Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis have also issued a series of apologies for clergy sexual abuse,” including here, here, here, and here.

These are crucially important stances. But as all parties, including Pope Francis, said repeatedly during the papal sojourn in Canada, apologies are not enough.

In the case of the Indigenous communities of Canada, concrete actions of reparation are critical, including return of Indigenous objects, determining if there are documents in the Vatican archives germane to the project of colonization and assimilation, repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery, and many other concrete steps toward transformative justice and healing being called for by Canada’s Indigenous communities.

There is much to be done—in Canada, in the United States, and in many other nation and regions of the world that have been infected by the structures and policies of colonization and European conquest. The Indigenous people of Canada have shown us a way forward, as has Pope Francis’s response.

This mutual spirit of nonviolence was perhaps most felt during Pope Francis last stop of his journey, at the edge of the Arctic Circle where he spent time with the Inuit community, as reported by Vatican News:

“In Iqaluit he met with residential school alumni at one of the four elementary schools – the dreadful institution created to re-educate indigenous people torn from their families, sites of atrocities and violence. Pope Francis entered a room in this structure, which resembles a large white box, with portholes distributed on the faceted and protruding walls.

“He entered in silence; a few dozen people were waiting for him, arranged in several rows, in a circle. Most of them were elderly, dressed simply, some in traditional clothes. Hands creased by years went to their faces. Tears slowly flowed down their motionless, almost expressionless faces, with gazes fixed on the Pope. In that snapshot…there is much more than a single life. There is the stifled cry of a people. Men and women who, also because of Catholics, have experienced horrors, and who in that encounter saw themselves recognized, touched, embraced and loved. Tears that expressed chasms, sufferings, hopes before which one can only be silent, open one’s arms and welcome.”

Nonviolence is a process, not an event. It is more than an ideal or a final goal. It is not simply aspirational. Instead, it is a courageous struggle by peaceful and determined means for the well-being for all, especially those who have been marginalized, diminished, dominated and destroyed. Put simply, nonviolence is the process of peace, the journey to justice, and the way to reconciliation. We are seeing this nonviolent dynamic in action in Canada.

When we ask, “What would an explicit, institutional embrace of nonviolence in the Catholic Church look like?”, we need look no further than the clear example of the struggle for justice and healing on display in Canada.

For a thoughtful reflection on the meaning of this papal visit, see Canadian Archbishop Donald J. Bolen’s interview in America Magazine.  For years he has been an ally walking in solidarity with the Indigenous people of Canada.  Archbishop Bolen participated in a June 6, 2022, online panel hosted by the Catholic Native Boarding School Accountability and Healing Project in collaboration with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. It was a powerful series of presentations, including by three members of Canada’s Indigenous Delegation to the Vatican this past Spring: Joanna Landry (First Nations), Gary Gagnon (Métis), and William Angelik (Inuit). The facilitator was Maka Black Elk, Executive Director for Truth and Healing at Red Cloud Indian School in Pine Ridge, South Dakota.


PHOTO: Pope Francis greets Grand Chief George Arcand of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations as he arrives at Edmonton International Airport July 24, 2022. Looking on is Mary Simon, governor general of Canada. The pope was beginning a six-day visit to Canada. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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