Truth must be foundation for building true reconciliation

To walk into St. Peter’s Basilica, the vast church at the heart of Vatican City, is to pass into the belly of wonder.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 26/07/2022 (192 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

To walk into St. Peter’s Basilica, the vast church at the heart of Vatican City, is to pass into the belly of wonder.

It is a world of gold upon gold, bronze upon bronze, travertine upon marble; a world of vaulted ceilings, polished mosaics, and exquisite sculpture. The preferred aesthetic of the Catholic Church has, for many reasons, never tended towards subtle.

In this, St. Peter’s — not the highest-ranking of the papal basilicas, but certainly the most famous — is a statement of power. It’s the largest church in the world and also, in the view of many believers and scholars, the most beautiful.

The basilica that stands today was not the first such structure. For more than 1,200 years, there was another, also a pearl of the church in its time but slowly decaying into ruin. To fund a replacement, in the 16th century, the church turned to raising money from indulgences — offering the faithful a relief from some punishments for their sins in exchange for wealth.

This practice, famously, infuriated Martin Luther, sparking the Protestant movement; the official Catholic position is the most aggressive of that era’s indulgence-selling was an abuse perpetrated by rogue individuals, in violation of church rules. Still, in part through those efforts, the basilica rose as a testament to what the institution itself can do.

ANDREW MEDICHINI / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

The basilica rose as a testament to what the institution itself can do.

When first I saw it, between the whistles of awe that escaped, unbidden, from my lips, two thoughts crossed my mind.

The first, a little wry, was one got the distinct impression the church could afford to pay its reparations to Indigenous people, which it has fought to withhold. The second was to consider how vast the difference is between the great basilicas of Rome, where all that wealth flowed, and the squalid residential schools on the other side of the world.

I wonder if the same thought crossed Pope Francis’s mind, as he came to Canada this week to meet with residential school survivors and offer an apology. I wonder if, as he sat on the stage in Maskwacis, Alta., surrounded by green fields and trees and clean open space, he thought about how the church once brought something so ugly to such a beautiful place.

What all goes through the mind of a pope, we can never truly know. We can only know what he says.

Some of what he said Monday was of incalculable value: an apology that, for thousands of survivors and their descendants, will smooth what has been a long and difficult road to healing. For those who wished for it, and waited, that must be honoured.

GREGORIO BORGIA / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

Surrounded by green fields and trees and clean open space, did the Pope think about how the church once brought something so ugly to such a beautiful place?

“It was awesome to hear those words for all the people who needed to hear it,” Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who was in Treaty 6 territory for the papal apology, said in a statement Tuesday. “I’m happy to see the survivors receive this apology. I believe it was a sincere apology.”

Yet, as Settee and other Indigenous leaders and speakers noted, it is just a step forward, not an ending.

The words of a pope are carefully chosen; they are marked by what they omit as much as by what they include.

The Pope spoke of healing, of journeys, of walking together. He spoke of the harms done by assimilation policies, and he spoke of remembering.

He did not remember everything, at least not verbally. For instance, he described how children in residential schools were subjected to “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse;” he didn’t mention sexual abuse.

ANDREW MEDICHINI / ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

How vast is the difference is between the great basilicas of Rome, where all that wealth flowed.

Possibly, it was lumped in under “physical.” Possibly, he was leery of how such verbiage would impact ongoing or future court cases. Or possibly, as some mused, he was trying to be mindful of the survivors, of not being too graphic in the words he used.

If so, that is no excuse. The shame of sexual abuse belongs only to the perpetrators, not to the victims. They were children, just little children, and they did nothing to deserve such violations.

Though the Pope spoke broadly of “policies” that gave rise to the residential schools, he said nothing about the Doctrine of Discovery, the series of papal decrees which declared lands inhabited by non-Christians as open for conquering.

That ideology became the basis for the legal frameworks of colonizing European powers, including Canada and the United States. Many Christian denominations have formally repudiated the doctrine; the Catholic Church which originated it has not. With a few words, the Pope could have decisively broken from this legacy. Why didn’t he?

On Tuesday, former senator Murray Sinclair, the Anishinaabe commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, pointed out this stark omission. The papal apology, he said, “left a deep hole in the acknowledgement of the full role of the church… by placing blame on individual members” and by neglecting to mention the discovery doctrine.

“While an apology has been made, that same doctrine is in place.” – Former senator Murray Sinclair

“While an apology has been made, that same doctrine is in place,” Sinclair said, in a statement. “The Pope and the church remain silent on the most problematic tenets of its belief system: that Indigenous peoples in Canada and around then world should not have the right to practice their own faith, cultures and traditions.”

So what happens now? What does it all mean?

The short answer can be this week’s papal visit will mean many things to many people. It will be discussed for a long time and from many angles. Some of those debates — such as whether the Pope should have been gifted a ceremonial headdress — are for Indigenous people to hold on their own terms.

Other parts of the discussion, though, are ones to which the whole country and all its structures must be party.

On that end, there was a moment in this papal visit all of Canada should see.

On Monday, after the Pope finished his speech, a Cree woman named Sipihko stood on the grass beyond the stage, raised her fist and began to sing. She sang the melody of the Canadian anthem, but using Cree words of resistance, her voice trembling in anguish as two tears traced a shimmering line down her cheek.

If something beautiful is to be built from this moment, then its foundation must be laid true.

“You are hereby served the spoken law, we the daughters of the great spirit and our tribal sovereign members can not be forced into law or treaty that is now the great law,” she said, according to a translation she gave to Global News. “We have appointed chiefs on our territories, govern yourselves accordingly.”

Her protest, more than anything the Pope said, revealed what the way forward from this visit must be.

It starts with truth. If something beautiful is to be built from this moment, then its foundation must be laid true. It cannot be built on a brittle insistence the harms of residential schools, and colonialism most broadly, were the sins of just bad individuals or bad policies.

This sort of admission has, to say the least, never been the church’s strong suit. But perhaps we are inching closer.

When Sipihko sang, with the voice of a strength and grief that crossed generations, she revealed a crucial truth: only by calling out and dismantling all the structures that harmed can a beautiful future arise in their place.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

History

Updated on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 12:36 AM CDT: Adds info about Sipihko's song

Updated on Wednesday, July 27, 2022 1:11 PM CDT: Clarifies quote by Sipihko

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