I AM a Roman Catholic.
I was baptized and confirmed in the Roman Catholic church. I have prayed the rosary, confessed my sins and received the Eucharist. As a child, I even served as an altar boy. For better or worse, my family’s cultural/religious background is steeped in Irish-Catholicism.
Am I a believer? Not exactly.
I’m open to the idea of God — depending on how you define it — but since my teenage years, I’ve largely considered myself an atheist. Admittedly, that’s softened as I’ve gotten older.
I still know the prayers. I still own a rosary. I have a copy of the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church on my bookshelf, alongside titles from Thomas Merton and G.K. Chesterton and Saint Augustine.
I’m certainly far from being devout.
Nevertheless, as far as the Pope and the church are concerned, I’m a Catholic for life. Lapsed as I may be, if I were to participate in the Sacrament of Reconciliation prior to death — as per Catholic theology — I’d go to heaven.
Since the discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former Catholic-run residential school in Kamloops, B.C., I’ve had many discussions with family members about the church’s role in the deeply racist and colonizing institutions. Those conversations are likely to continue after Thursday’s announcement of up to 751 unmarked graves at the Catholic-run Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which is located close to where my great-grandfather grew up.
When the Kamloops news broke, my grandfather, a devout Catholic, texted me: "As the home of the most detailed record-keeping ever, I don’t buy any silence or ‘we don’t know.’ They have the best historical records of births, baptisms and deaths."
He’s right. The Roman Catholic church is an institution that has stood for 2,000 years. It has, without hyperbole, the greatest record-keeping system the world has ever seen. And yet, the church refused to turn over many of those records to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. It continues to refuse to turn over requested records to this day.
When I spoke with Tom McMahon, the former legal counsel for the TRC, he said all of the churches involved in running residential schools were difficult to deal with, but the Roman Catholic church was the worst. This is a scandal. It is disgraceful. It is an insult to the memory of the children who were stripped of their identities. It is a spit in the face of those who never made it home.
There is another dubious distinction that pocks the church when it comes to the history of residential schools in Canada: it is the only institution involved that hasn’t issued a formal apology. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches, which ran a minority of the schools, have issued formal apologies. The Catholic church, which ran the majority of them, has not.
Have there been expressions of remorse? Sure. The year 1991 saw many apologies: from Canadian bishops, from the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and the Jesuits, from individual archbishops and Church representatives. There have been more in recent days, since the grisly discovery in Kamloops.
But among all those apologies, one person has been suspiciously absent: the Pope.
The Roman Catholic church is a deeply hierarchical institution. An apology from a specific religious order or archbishop is not the same thing as a formal papal apology. The closest the Pope came was in 2009, during a meeting with Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor and then-national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, where he expressed "great sorrow" for the church’s role in running the schools.
What he didn’t say was: We’re sorry.
It’s not as if there haven’t been requests for a formal apology. Among its 94 calls to action, the TRC requested an apology from the Pope. And in 2018, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asked the Pope to apologize — he flatly refused.
After the discovery in Kamloops, Pope Francis issued a statement in which he called on Canadian politicians and Catholic religious leaders to "cooperate with determination" to reveal the truth about the history of residential schools.
What it wasn’t was an apology.
Here’s a lesson I remember from catechism school. It’s what the Catholic priests and nuns taught me as a child. We’re all hopeless sinners — each and every one of us, from the lowest of the low, to the highest of the high.
God’s capacity for mercy is limitless. He loves us despite our faults. It doesn’t matter what we do, He’s willing to forgive any transgression we commit, no matter how terrible it may be. But here’s the catch: you have to confess. You have to go to a priest, admit what you’ve done, express genuine remorse, promise to do better and take your penance.
If the church is going to claim me as a member for life, then I claim the right to weigh in on matters of church controversy. So I say to the Pope what I was taught by Catholic priests and nuns years ago:
Ryan Thorpe is a Winnipeg Free Press reporter.
Ryan Thorpe likes the pace of daily news, the feeling of a broadsheet in his hands and the stress of never-ending deadlines hanging over his head.