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Fiddling While the Churches Burn

These are sorrowful times for the Catholic Church in Canada.

The discovery of more than a thousand unmarked graves on the sites of former residential schools run for Indigenous children by Catholic religious orders and dioceses—with the certainty that more will be found—is shining renewed light on one of Canada’s ugliest chapters. But while the discoveries have exposed our colonial past at its worst, they have also revealed the degree to which the Canadian Catholic Church is a splintered institution.

It has long been estimated that at least 4,100 children in Canada died due to illness or accidents in residential schools they were forced by the federal government to attend. A lack of access to records has made research challenging, but recent use of ground-penetrating radar has begun to offer hard evidence of testimony delivered to the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that prompted the TRC to describe the experience of residential schools to be “cultural genocide.”

This is a significant moment in relations, not only between Indigenous people and the Canadian government, which instituted and funded the schools, but also between Indigenous people and the Catholic Church. Some have stepped up to seek change, writing open letters and creating petitions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is Catholic, has called on the Church for a formal apology. But there has been a deafening silence from some corners. The only thing more disappointing than that silence are the voices of those who feel the need to defend the Church at all costs.

The right continues to quibble and make excuses rather than confront the past. They argue about the exact numbers of children buried on these sites, or note that sometimes these sites were used by the nearest community, too, as if one could quantify grief, that finding 10 children’s graves would make it somehow less worrisome than finding 50.

They point to individual apologies issued by various bishops, including comments from Pope Benedict XVI in 1999, to suggest the Church has responded adequately, even though it has not yet answered Call to Action #58 from the TRC, which expressly asked for an apology to be delivered by the Pope in Canada—within a year of the report’s issuance—as was done in Ireland in 2010.

While a 2006 class action suit required dioceses and orders involved to pay $25 million—or “best efforts”—collections taken up in the affected locations and efforts in some unrelated dioceses netted a shameful final $3.7 million. Canada, for what it’s worth, has 13 million Catholics.

As the horrifying discoveries continue, and Catholics begin to gain some insight into what the families forcibly torn apart to enroll children in these schools suffered, the cries for justice increase, as do suggestions that both attendance and the collection plate will take hits as parishes begin to re-open post-COVID. This story has been front-page news since May of this year and is not going away. The Church looks heartless and racist, the sins of the past still not healed.

In the midst of this, one Catholic pastor in the Toronto area gave a tone-deaf homily recently in which he argued that no one talks about “the good done” by the Catholic Church in residential schools.

Right-wing bloggers and websites have assiduously avoided the topic of the graves, instead focusing on fires raging in Catholic churches, some on First Nations reserves. With almost no evidence available, the right labels this a hate crime. And when others have stated that if churches have been burned by those affected by the legacy of residential schools the anger behind the action is understandable, the right rears up as if commenters had struck the matches themselves. Obviously, no one is condoning criminal behavior, especially as some of these churches minister to Indigenous Catholics; to say one understands is not to condone. But churches can be rebuilt. The thousands of children who died cannot be brought back to life.

Compassionate Canadian Catholics are discussing the need for a papal visit, if Pope Francis’ health allows, to make a formal apology. They seek complete payment of the $25 million owed in the class action suit and they want the remains found on all former residential school sites to be identified and buried in a manner the family wishes.

This resonates. When my husband died last year, our family decided to keep his ashes on our piano, still in the midst of family life. I’ve seen my boys give the urn a loving pat, and my daughters blow kisses. We know where Mike’s remains are. We have that solace. Not to know the circumstances of a loved one’s death or burial place is a cruelty I cannot imagine. That my Church had any role in contributing to a grieving family’s suffering appalls me.

But as more graves are found, some continue to fiddle while churches burn. What they fail to see is that the Church—and the laity—are radically different than when the residential schools first opened in 1880. Many of us are asking whether it will ever be possible for us to apologize enough.

Catherine Mulroney is a communications officer at the University of St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.


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