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Gerard O’ConnellApril 08, 2022
Archbishop Donald J. Bolen of Regina, Saskatchewan, participates in a smudging ceremony as Rita Means, tribal council representative with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, holds a smoking bowl at the Church of Santa Maria in Traspontina in Rome Oct. 18, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The Most Rev. Donald J. Bolen, archbishop of Regina, was one of the six Canadian bishops who accompanied the delegates from Canada’s Métis, Inuit and First Nations peoples when they visited Pope Francis to share their stories about abuse at Canada’s residential schools at the Vatican a week ago. “I ask for God’s forgiveness,” the pope told the Indigenous delegation gathered at the special audience he held for them at the Vatican on April 1. “I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry.” Archbishop Bolen, who was deeply involved in the planning and preparation for the visit, was there that day.

In this exclusive interview with America during the visit to Rome, I asked Archbishop Bolen—who is 61 and was appointed archbishop of Regina on July 11, 2016—to explain the significance of this visit between the delegates and Pope Francis, his impressions following the meeting and what he expects from the pope’s pledged visit to Canada.

About 60 percent of the 139 residential schools across Canada were run by Catholic religious orders or dioceses. At least 150,000 children from the First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples were forced to attend the schools between the 1870s and 1997.

At the meeting, Pope Francis also accepted the delegation’s prior demand that he deliver the apology on Canadian soil. He vowed to visit them there around the feast of St. Anne on July 26. “I will be happy to benefit again from meeting you when I visit your native lands, where your families live,” he said. “Until we meet again in Canada, where I will be better able to express to you my closeness.”

Our conversation has been edited for length, clarity and style.

What do you see as the overall significance of the visit of representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples to Pope Francis?

Many Indigenous people have requested that a key step on the way to reconciliation is an acknowledgement at all levels of the church, including from the pope, of the incredible sufferings that Indigenous peoples experienced through the residential schools—the physical, spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse—and that it was a system of government-led but church-supported assimilation (through the church’s operation of residential schools), which deprived Indigenous people of their culture, spirituality and traditions, and separated children from their families.

They want the church to acknowledge its responsibility for the waves of suffering and trauma—and intergenerational trauma—that took place there and as a result of that experience. And they want to hear that now—not only from the bishops of Canada, but they want to hear that acknowledgement from the pope. The significance of this visit was to create a space where Pope Francis can hear directly from Indigenous people—can hear their suffering, struggles, experience, perspectives on what happened—and they can hear a response from the pope.

The Indigenous peoples want the church to acknowledge its responsibility for the waves of suffering and intergenerational trauma that took place.

So the first step was to create that space of listening, and for Pope Francis to engage directly. Friday [April 1] was his opportunity to respond in the first instance. And, of course, when he comes to Canada he will respond further.

We do not see this visit as an endpoint, but it is not exactly a beginning point because we have been walking together in some ways. But it is a critical moment, just as the visit to Canada will be a critical moment in terms of how to walk together in a good way; how to take steps towards healing; how to acknowledge the sins and mistakes of the past and the hurt and suffering that were caused; how to be an ally of the Indigenous people; how to be in solidarity with their rightful pursuit of justice; and how to recognize the giftedness and beauty of Indigenous ways and of Indigenous people. This is an important step along that long path.

Are the Canadian bishops all on the same page now?

Over the years, many bishops across the country had previously published their own apologies for the role their dioceses played in the operation of residential schools. However, last September, we felt it was also important for us to join together in plenary to issue a collective, unequivocal apology acknowledging the suffering of residential schools; to unambiguously and together support this delegation and to support a $30 million financial commitment to healing and reconciliation projects. So we are walking together ourselves in order to walk together with Indigenous peoples.

We do not see this visit as an endpoint, but it is not exactly a beginning point because we have been walking together in some ways.

Are the Canadian bishops also speaking for the religious orders on this matter?

We are functioning at this point as a body of bishops, but the large majority of religious orders who were involved in residential schools offered apologies dating way back. Starting in 1991, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate issued a strong apology. Other religious communities gathered together and issued an apology, so they are certainly following—and many are visibly supporting—what we are doing.

You have sat in on the delegations’ meetings with Pope Francis. You have been listening. What is your impression?

The honest, basic dialogue and encounter we desired is happening. The Indigenous people have been very articulate, passionate, open and strong in their presentations. Pope Francis was listening deeply, engaging and responding from the heart. Some of them were coming out articulating that this was a very positive experience. This was very good to hear.

The honest, basic dialogue and encounter we desired is happening.

As bishops, you have also interacted with the groups here. Has something come out of that which you had not understood before, or is everything as you imagined it would be?

Well, I didn’t imagine that much. I mean, I was very mindful that delegates from all over the country were coming together and each bringing their own experience. And in the presence of 75 members of the Canadian media, it is a kind of pressure-cooker situation—so very much under the spotlight. That said, the chance to spend time together and to continue to develop and deepen our relationships and our understanding of each other is very valuable as we look towards what comes after this trip. So I think we are taking good steps and there will be things to build on from here.

So the pope will go to Canada?

That is very clear!

What do you expect him to do there?

Well, I think there is a need for a long conversation with the survivors and elders in terms of what is needed to bring healing in the context of a very short visit; because he is 85, has mobility problems and is committed to simplicity. So what can he do in a short period of time that will be helpful, what can he do to empower Indigenous people and to empower the Catholic Church in Canada to really walk with and engage deeply with survivors and elders and communities? There is much to discern.

I think there is a need for a long conversation with the survivors and elders in terms of what is needed to bring healing in the context of the pope's very short visit this year.

Since you became a bishop, you have been heavily involved in all this work with the Indigenous people. How has this impacted on you in terms of your ministry and how you see the church in Canada?

When I became a priest—when I became a bishop—preaching the word was very much at the heart of what I had desired to do and really consistent with Pope Francis’ pontificate. That has shifted significantly towards healing the wounds.

Healing the wounds does not mean we don’t preach the word, but in walking with the victims of clergy sexual abuse, it is clear those wounds are deep. In walking with Indigenous peoples and especially with survivors, there is a legacy of woundedness.

Healing the wounds does not mean we don’t preach the word, but in walking with the victims of clergy sexual abuse, it is clear those wounds are deep.

I see much more clearly than I ever did before the need to walk with those who are wounded and suffering and, in a very special way, to walk with those who are wounded or suffering as a result of their relations and encounters with the church and people in the church. So that has changed so much for me. But it is very paschal work.

Jesus shows us the face of God revealed to us in a life which is a self-gift, which involves enormous amounts of suffering, which is about solidarity with those who are suffering; and it ends in death before it moves to resurrection. That teaches us that we are called to, and able to, embrace the pain and suffering of others—and our own wounds too—because Christ walks with us. So we are called to walk with others and I see that right at the heart of things now.

How much has this issue of the Indigenous peoples impacted the Canadian Catholic community?

It has impacted deeply on the church—deeply!

Of course, the pandemic accompanying the truth and reconciliation process and the great trauma that has been released through the ground penetrating radar findings are incredibly destabilizing things. They follow on the deep challenge to the integrity of the church that came with waves of revelations of clergy sexual abuse. So the church is facing an incredibly deep challenge.

Part of the challenge that comes with this work with residential school survivors is the challenge to the narrative of the church’s mission to Indigenous peoples. Canada as a whole; its basic self-understanding, its narrative of English and French people coming together and battling and then coming to live together. That narrative has just been deeply challenged by the fact that Indigenous people were not really part of the story that we told about the history of Canada.

The Catholic Church in Canada is experiencing  ‘a deep shift in the narrative of the self-understanding of the church.’

For the church, a narrative of coming to bring the Gospel to Indigenous peoples, including through these residential schools, has been deeply challenged by the fact that that bringing of the Gospel was in the context of the government project of the assimilation of Indigenous peoples, and knowingly or unknowingly being complicit in an initiative which so undermined Indigenous identity. That is a deep shift in the narrative of the self-understanding of the church. That is what the Catholic Church in Canada is living through right now; that deconstruction of a narrative and coming to a more true story is not an easy thing.

Does the Canadian Church have Indigenous bishops or priests?

No bishops, one priest and some deacons. The Indigenous clerics I know are deacons. We work with a Catholic coalition of Indigenous people, bishops, lay movements, clergy and institutes of consecrated life, called the Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle, to foster relationships between the Catholic Church and Indigenous people.

And sisters?

Very few.

Pope Francis has not only met and listened to the three Indigenous delegations separately. He also met them together as a group on April 1 and gave them an apology and promised to come to Canada, as they requested, to give the apology on their home soil as part of the fuller process of healing and reconciliation. What was your takeaway from the visit and, especially, from that final meeting?

Listening to Pope Francis’ apology was a historic moment for the Canadian bishops, the delegates and many Canadians watching overseas. I was deeply grateful to the delegates who shared their experiences and to Pope Francis for responding with compassion, remorse and a desire for a more hopeful future. We have heard from survivors of residential schools about carrying shame their whole lives. We hope they now know the church stands with them and they are not alone in their pain.

Pope Francis reminded us that we are guardians of our brothers and sisters. I take this as an invitation to continue the important work of reconciliation with a shared appreciation for the sacredness of life. As Catholics, we believe in the restorative power of apologies, but the next step of the reconciliation process is amending the wrong that was done.

We hope they now know the church stands with them and they are not alone in their pain.

We have a new foundation to support our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and I am inspired to work with my fellow bishops and Catholics across the country on a new path: through our national fundraising pledge, our planning for the pope’s eventual pilgrimage, our ongoing efforts to make sure records and artifacts are available to Indigenous communities, and more.

I was also moved by the words of Dr. Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor and commissioner for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He called on us to walk where there is no path and create a new one for people to follow. Every delegate who courageously spoke to their experiences took up this call, and we are grateful that Pope Francis responded in kind. We look forward to walking on this new path together.

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