There’s a lot being said in the media these days about the failed Roman Catholic healing fund — the one that was supposed to raise $25 million to help make amends for the Church’s role in residential schools, but only managed to bring in less than $4 million after five years of effort.
A common narrative accuses Canadian Catholics of not caring enough, or trying hard enough, to raise the funds. Some also point to the construction of new churches during that time as proof they cared more about themselves than Indigenous people harmed by the schools.
The story is not that simple, says Michael Swan, longtime reporter at The Catholic Register, Canada’s national Catholic newspaper.
According to Swan, who has been following this story for many years, it was more a matter of bad strategy and bad timing that led to the failure of the campaign — not that Catholics were opposed to it.
Called Moving Forward Together, the 2008-2013 campaign was part of the 2006 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA) that was signed with 16 Catholic dioceses and 32 orders involved with the schools.
In addition to over $50 million in cash and in-kind services called for by the agreement, the Roman Catholic signatories pledged to raise another $25 million through a major fundraising campaign.
To do that, they hired a major Canadian fundraising firm to help them raise the money. But launching the campaign right in the middle of the 2008 recession made things challenging, right from the start.
What made it worse, says Swan, was the fundraising firm was more accustomed to running large capital campaigns — not grassroots fundraising efforts.
"They went after big donors, corporations, not regular folks," he says. "They didn’t build momentum. It was a bad idea from the start."
The idea there was some large pool of corporate or big donor money for the campaign was "pure fantasy," he adds, noting the fundraising did not go well.
And because of the focus on big donors, most Catholics didn’t even know about it, Swan says, noting he didn’t hear — and he was reporting about Catholics in Canada for their national newspaper — until 2013.
That’s when James Weisgerber, then Archbishop of Winnipeg, launched a desperate effort to save the campaign by appealing to Catholics in the pews.
"It was a last-minute Hail Mary pass," Swan says, noting only 14 dioceses in Canada took part. "It could never make up the deficit."
What didn’t help with that desperation fundraising effort was Typhoon Haiyan hitting The Philippines a week before the collection was to take place.
"The typhoon grabbed all the attention," Swan says, noting even if that hadn’t happened it wouldn’t have mattered. "No pew collection ever raises $20 million."
It’s also important to remember the context, Swan says, noting the campaign took place two years before the release of the Truth and Justice Commission final report.
"The level of awareness among Catholics (about residential schools) was pretty low then, as it was among most Canadians," he says.
Unlike today, when the terrible legacy of residential schools is dominating the news, "Catholics had very little knowledge of it, or what they were being asked to contribute to."
Looking ahead, Swan says he’s heard Canadian bishops are talking about a national campaign to raise funds. "It’s not a matter of whether, but how to do it," he says of their discussions.
He just hopes they don’t take too long. "The problem is the longer they wait, the more reluctant they appear to do want to do it. They may miss the moment," he says.
But even if the bishops create such a campaign, Swan says ordinary Catholics have to be engaged, too.
"The bishops are only a part of the church," he says. "Members of the church have to take ownership. They have to say, ‘We are the church, the bishops are not going to save us.’"
If members get on board and demand action, the Church "will catch up to the people," he adds.
Of the grassroots activism that is already rising up to raise funds and promote reconciliation — like the fundraising and engagement campaign sponsored by Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation — Swan notes it is bringing together Catholics who disagree about things like theology, liturgy or abortion.
"These are groups often at odds with each other, now working together on a common project," he says. "They are finding a new sense of purpose together as they pursue reconciliation."
Although Swan doesn’t think money is the solution — it can’t buy justice or reconciliation — he believes it is an important first step for all Catholics.
"This is a time for all of us as Catholics to do penance and atonement, the whole church," he says. "The bishops can’t do it for us."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.