When Julius Caesar informed the Senate of the Republic of Rome of the successful military defeat of an enemy by his legions, he is reputed to have said Veni, Vidi, Vici—I came, I saw, I conquered.
Two millennia later, another Roman came, saw and conquered. Except in this instance, the people he addressed had already been conquered for centuries, knew the personal price of defeat and dispossession, and he came not in triumph with a wreath of victory, but on a “pilgrimage of penance.”
Pope Francis traveled from the Tiber to Canada to honour his pledge to deliver an apology on native soil to the First Peoples of the New World for the colonizing crimes of the past, specifically the church-administered residential schools. These schools were often enclaves of segregation, cultural genocide, brutalizing behaviour by overseers, large dormitories of physical and sexual abuse, places where children were involuntarily submitted to a process of rigorous assimilation to the dominant power. These schools were the creation of the federal government, but the political leaders in Ottawa discharged operational responsibilities to several Christian churches—United, Anglican, Presbyterian, Mennonite and Roman Catholic—the lion’s share of which fell under the auspices of Catholic religious orders. For over a century, some 150,000 Indigenous children went through the schools. Thousands died due to disease, malnutrition and neglect, while intergenerational trauma damaged the lives of countless survivors and their descendants. The social and political consequences of a policy born of Victorian high mindedness and arrogance are with us still.
Expectations for this papal visit—held last month in three discrete areas of the country (Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit)—were high and the pope knew that he was being dropped into a political and spiritual maelstrom. Still, he masterfully focused on the mission at hand—a healing mission distinguished by its genuine contrition and moral imperative for healing. He knew that for all the words written for him by his Canadian hosts, curial support team and cardinal advisors, in the end he needed to impart sincerity by gesture, silence, attentive listening and tactile moments of embrace and reverenced kissing.
Francis knew that he needed to create a momentum of tenderness because he knew, as that very Catholic Southern Gothic novelist Flannery O’Connor knew, that when tenderness is just theory and “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical outcome is terror.” To be tender is to be accountable, to be present to the other and to honour the other.
When Francis came to Washington to address both Houses of Congress, he highlighted some of the moral visionaries of the land, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. He also included in their number Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and made much of their intellectual and spiritual contributions to America.
Likewise, when Francis came to Canada, he drew on the wisdom of two of the land’s globally recognized Catholic thinkers: political philosopher Charles Taylor and philosophical theologian Bernard Lonergan, a fellow Jesuit. In quoting Taylor on secularization, the pope noted that secularism constitutes a formidable challenge for our pastoral imagination and prompts us to look at “restructuring the spiritual life in new forms and new ways of existing.”
As I have said in my guest column, “View From Guelph” (The Tablet, August 6, 2022), “in applying this bold exercise in pastoral imagination to the Canadian context, indeed the New World context, Francis is calling for nothing less than a spiritual revolution. How do we address the corrosive effects of colonization, the deliberate and systematic effort to eradicate the cultures and spiritualities of the First Peoples, the appalling record of Euro-centric hegemony with its presumed civilizational superiority, in a way that moves beyond theory, exhortatory rhetoric and deft political manoeuvring? Theologian Fredrick Bauerschmidt concisely encapsulates the options, “Christians must take as their model not Sepúlveda [the Spanish Renaissance humanist] who justified the conversion by conquest of the Americas, but the martyred Trappist monks of Tibhirine, who died because they would not abandon their Muslim neighbours.” The option, in other words, is either aggressive proselytizing or authentic witness. For centuries, we chose the former and the consequences are clear.
Francis repeatedly calls for the “recognition of the special genius of the Indigenous peoples, their harmony with Creation, the richness of their languages, which we ruthlessly suppressed, and the paramount need to move through truth to reconciliation and forgiveness.”
What happened in Canada is now unfolding in the United States following a detailed investigation initiated by the Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, examining the legacy of the Native boarding schools, the role of Catholic orders in their administration and the need to find a process for moving forward with national healing.
Francis’ Canadian journey can prove a workable and inspiring template.
Michael W. Higgins is Distinguished Professor of Catholic Thought Emeritus at Sacred Heart University. The author and co-author of numerous books, his most recent is The Church Needs the Laity: the Wisdom of John Henry Newman (Paulist).