Pope Francis offers apology to Indigenous delegates

After a week of meetings, Pope Francis has issued an apology to Indigenous delegates visiting Rome, expressing “sorrow and shame” for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Pope told delegates at the Vatican that he hopes to be in Canada for the church’s feast of St. Anne on July 26, a visit considered vital to reconciliation by many.

Speaking in Italian, the Pope commended the resilience of representatives from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), and the Métis Nation, and remarked on their dedication to the land.

Pope Francis continued that the stories he has heard this week leave him feeling shame and indignation.

“I also feel shame… sorrow and shame for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you,” Pope Francis said.

“For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart, I am very sorry.”

Pope Francis delivered his message to a group of delegates consisting of survivors of residential institutions, Indigenous leaders, Knowledge Keepers and youth, and pledged to visit this summer.

The apology was met with tears and relief by some, but is also asked to be just a step in the Catholic Church’s penance.

ITK President Natan Obed said during a press conference in Rome that the apology is “a piece of the puzzle”, but was encouraged by Pope Francis’ actions.

“I was touched by the way in which he expressed his sorrow, and also the way in which he condemned the actions of the church,” Obed said.

“There is much more to do, and so an apology is a part of a larger picture.”

Several elders spoke to Pope Francis at the assembly, with the Pope receiving meaningful gifts from different delegates.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the Pope also gave each Indigenous group a bronze olive branch as a sign of peace and reconciliation.

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald said in a statement that while long overdue, the apology is a welcome step for the Catholic Church.

“The words ‘I am very sorry’ are for my mother who attended St. Anne’s institution and all who did not live to see this day, especially our little ones who lay in unmarked graves across Turtle Island,” said Archibald.

“This long overdue apology by the Pope is welcomed and we must work with urgency on the next steps on our healing path forward, which includes action on reparations and revoking the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Mohawks of the Bay of Quinte Chief R. Don Maracle said he was happy to see the apology come, but that is only the first step of many.

Maracle said the apology shouldn’t have been such a process to achieve.

“It’s long overdue,” said Chief Maracle.

“I didn’t like the fact though that the survivors had to go to Rome to beg for it… I’m just pleased that it has finally happened.”

Chief Maracle recognized the large step Pope Francis took on behalf of the Catholic Church, but says he wishes the response came with less prompting.

“It will take more than words, but the Pope’s apology is a first step and I do appreciate and thank the Pope for doing that,” Chief Maracle said.

“I just wish it could have been done on their own accord because it’s the right thing to do and our people shouldn’t have had to ask for it.”

He says that Indigenous people in Canada still want to see continued action and not just words from both the church and the government.

“It’s time now for action towards healing,” Chief Maracle said.

“Our federal government has taken steps to begin to rectify some of the harm that has been done by improving the quality of life in the Indigenous communities… there just is more that needs to be done.”

The impacts of residential schools are still being felt by Indigenous people throughout the country, with the last remaining school shutting its’ doors in 1997.

The Anglican, Presbyterian and United Churches have previously apologized for their roles in Canada’s residential school system. 

No official date has been named for the papal visit.