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The Jungle

Confessing Other People's Sins

On the legacy of Canadian residential schools.


Last July I was spending the summer in South Dakota, where I have been involved in pastoral ministry with Lakota Catholics for over a decade. My memories—from rushing to a hospital to baptize a sick child to hawking nachos at bingo in church basements—are precious and, by now, innumerable. While I was at my adopted parish in Rapid City, Pope Francis visited Canada to apologize “for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities co-operated” in the Canadian government’s policy of forced assimilation. In particular, the pope mentioned Canada’s residential schools.

The papal visit made international headlines. During the month and a half I was in Rapid City, there were multiple homicides in the apartment complexes on either side of my parish. Later, I had trouble finding information about these killings online because other murders previously committed in the same buildings kept confusing my searches. In the end, little was written about any of these lives lost.

The murders were drug-related. Both perpetrators and victims were Native, so they did not easily fit into culture war narratives. I was happy to see a papal visit put Native Catholics in the spotlight, yet I could not help but wonder whether the attention of the media and world leaders was directed to the right place. Often I’ve found that battles over historical crimes end up distracting from improving anybody’s life today. In any case, the apology produced barely a ripple of interest among my Native parishioners.

The papal apologies in Canada were not the first that year; in April, Francis issued initial apologies in Rome. He had already apologized in 2015 for “grave sins” committed against “the native peoples of America.” These followed similar statements from Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Saying “I’m sorry” can mean many things—from something as banal as “I didn’t hear you” to empathy for someone else’s pain (“I’m sorry for your loss”) to an admission of guilt and acceptance of responsibility (“I’m sorry for my sins”). Common to all of these is the desire to better a relationship where something had gone wrong. This desire for “a future of justice, healing and reconciliation” was the fundamental reason for the Holy Father’s penitential journey to Canada.

To that desire, of course, I can only add, “Amen.” But the profusion of papal apologies raises doubts about their effectiveness. Indeed, like stock characters in a play, some activists used the papal trip as an opportunity to call for yet more apologies.

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Anthony Lusvardi, S. J., teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is author of Baptism of Desire and Christian Salvation, forthcoming from The Catholic University of America Press.