I heard recently that certain people close to the Lord have been receiving a word, telling us that the Church will suffer great persecution. Certainly, if we listen to the news or follow certain people on social media or even certain of our family members, we might feel like the Church is in deep trouble. There have been scandals over the abuse of Children by priests, financial scandals, even calls to boycott the Church over lack of payment of the recompense monies due from the agreement with the Truth and Reconciliation commission. Lately, the news has been filled about graves being identified on the properties of various residential schools, many of whom were run by Catholic Orders for a period from the late 19’th century to near the end of the 20’th century.
What are we to think of all this? I have heard some people jump in with energetic defense of the Church in various ways, and I’ve heard those chime in on the attacks, even certain people who I thought were faithful Catholics have gotten caught up in the rhetoric against the church. So what is the truth? How are we to respond?
I think our response needs to depend on who will be receiving our response. If the person listening is among those many who have been injured then argument is useless and will only serve to divide more. If the person listening is caught up in false claims about things, perhaps they can be reasoned with, but emotional engagement tends to make impassioned discussions of the facts hard to do. For these people, due respect is needed, allow the injured their story, allow the angered their anger and do not respond in kind, but be kind instead. Love and compassion for those who have been wounded is the only response that has a hope of working.
But what of our own personal thought processes? What of discussions among ourselves or others, who are all struggling to make sense of these things? First of all, in this discussion, I want to accomplish two things. I want to try to guide us to a recognition of the truth and I want us to recognize the path forward.
There is a good summary of resources that Father Shawn has been collecting and is listed on the Cathedral web site at https://stmaryscathedral.ca/residentialschools/.
Much of what I am writing here uses references from that list.
The news media unfortunately writes headlines with the words “Discovered … and … unmarked graves” when it refers to the grave sites being identified at various locations. These two things together make many people think that no one knew about these graves and that they were “mass graves”, like we might imagine was done if someone had been deliberately trying to hide the graves. Dr. Scott Hamilton, in a report to the Truth and Reconciliation commission “Where are the Children Buried?” offers several scenarios as to how the grave sites arrived at the condition they are in now. Some of them are part of community grave yards and are still maintained. Others were lost to time as schools burned down or were abandoned and the properties re-verted to nature. There is one report by the parish priest in one community (Ft. St. James, B.C.) during the Spanish Influenza pandemic, where most of the children and all the teachers and principal got sick. 78 people dies, including some children, some teachers and some from the surrounding community. The priest describes the situation where by people were dying so fast, they finally resorted to digging a single large grave for the growing numbers of bodies.
So were those graveyards proof that someone tried to hide them? Are they proof that there was some evil plot by the Church? Are they proof that the children were buried without any sense of decorum or respect. Dr. Hamilton’s report makes it clear that most of them were originally marked by wooden crosses, since they were buried by the Orders who were running the residential schools. So, no. They were not hidden, just lost to time and nature. They were not mass graves of a large numbers of children dying together in some atrocity, although there were times that because of disease or pandemic when multiple people were dying at the same time. Generally, they were grave sites of the deceased children whose numbers built up over the decades those schools were operating. The death rates dropped off precipitously in the years after WWII when public health standards were much higher, to the point that death from then on in the schools were rare. So, in the early years, when public health standards were pretty poor, there were high death rates at some schools, especially due to disease sweeping through the children. Several cases of such horrible times are described in Dr. Hamilton’s report.
Another issue that comes up is the issue of students being abused. I have heard people recoil in horror and anger and others completely deny it. Did abuse happen? I can clearly recall times in my own school where teachers did things that I thought were abusive but I was too scared to “tell”. So if abuse was happening in my “white” schools, where the teachers were the same ethnic grouping as the students, it’s impossible to imagine that somehow it was not happening in those schools. Moreover, in those schools, the teachers came were mostly “white” and the students were all from various indigenous bands. Prejudice was far more prevalent and acceptable back then, especially, prejudice by the white population against anyone who was not white. We, as a people, thought we were better than they were. We thought we were doing them good by teaching them to become more like us. Even those teachers who had genuine compassion and love for their charges were, in essence, doing them harm by their very act of telling those children that their heritage was no good, that they were inferior and needed to adapt to better ways. Now, imagine a teacher who, in a regular school might have been prone to abusing children. That teacher, in a residential school, would have felt very little restraint keeping them from abusing the children.
So, was every child who went to those schools abused? Some people have tried to deny that abuse happened, except in rare cases. I don’t think that is correct. Was every child sexually assaulted, or criminally physical-ly assaulted? I doubt it but I don’t know. I like to believe that most people are good and would not have engaged in such criminal behavior. However, I would like to point out three things: 1) By today’s standards, most forms of corporal punishment that were used, even in my own childhood, would be considered criminal now. 2) Those Children came from a culture where that form of punishment was not done so even teachers who did not bend the rules when applying punishment, from the children’s perspective, were abusive. And finally, 3) We had parents and community support if we felt wronged. Those children had no one to turn to and even when they returned home, they had been told that their community was somehow “Less” than ours. So, in essence, yes. Every one of those children was abused in one way or the other.
Some will defend the Church by saying that it was merely trying to evangelize those people, to save their souls. Well consider that the early Church converted people individually, by showing them Christ’s love in their lives and their actions. I’m pretty sure many of those Children did not see Christ in the teacher who was “correcting”, nor in the whole system that did them so much harm. We need to show them Christ in our lives. We still need to evangelize but NOT by trying to force an entire population. We need to convert them by ex-ample, by showing them Christ’s love in our own lives. By looking forward at how we can better understand them and by respecting them where they are.
So, what now? What can we do? We have inherited a mess. And we need to take humbly accept our own historical guilt but we also need to take courage as we look to the future.
There was an interview on CBC with the Chief of the Cowessess first nation, Chief Cadmus Delorme, where the discovery of over 751 graves near Regina was announced just recently, which came after a multi-year re-search project, partially funded by the Regina Catholic Archdiocese. You can find the recording on the Cathedral home page or directly at this link. It’s not easy to listen to but it’s good. https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1914227267751. If someone has a right to be angry, Chief Delorme and his people do. Yet, that is not the message he is portraying. He is looking to the future, to reconciliation, not backwards, for revenge. “I love living in Canada… There is an accidental racism and ignorance in this country, when it comes to history… We are not asking for pity. We’re asking for understanding. We’re asking for you to stand beside us as we are gaining our control again, as indigenous people in our treaty relationship… This country would be some much more well off when indigenous ideology and understand was welcomed in and not just brought in on certain days of the year”
Are you ready to try to understand what we all inherited? And to work together to make this a better country for everyone?
As a follow up comment, Remember my opening statement about the prophecies of tribulation for the Church? Those same prophecies about the hard times coming include prediction of a rebirth of the Church, of a re-invigorating of Christ in the lives of the faithful. Let’s pray for this outcome. I think we have been suffering from the tribulation now for a while. We need to remember that we have hope. Hope in Christ.