My church and my country, and a community I value, have been implicated in hiding a mass grave of abused children. An unmarked mass grave of 215 indigenous children has been discovered under a residential school in British Columbia run by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This has haunted me as a Catholic, as a graduate of an Oblate institution, and as a Canadian.
We have not done well. We are not doing well. The statement from the president of the Canadian Catholic bishops said too little.
This dark and dolorous news from the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia ensnares all Catholics. It affects the families especially, for clinical evidence (some of it discussed here) indicates that trauma is transmitted transgenerationally.
Many Catholics may not see that, may not want to see that. We don’t want to feel responsible for things our ancestors (family or ecclesial) did. Western individualism has infected the Catholic imagination for a long time now, leading many of us to shrug at this news and move on, thinking it has little to do with Catholics in the United States and England — after all, it was more than a century ago in another country, and everyone involved is long dead.
Anglicans Better Than Catholics
As an Anglican in 1993, I was grateful to the then-primate, Archbishop Michael Peers, for his apology to native peoples for the abuse they received at the hands of the Anglican Church of Canada. This was then followed by the ACC restructuring itself to give aboriginal Anglicans much greater autonomy and self-governance to foreclose future possibilities for abuse.
Catholic leaders have, in Canada and elsewhere, been more stingy with their apologies. Indeed, in this same time certain American Catholics, led by Richard John Neuhaus and Avery Dulles and other prominent Catholic academics, argued that Pope John Paul II should not offer a global apology prior to entering the third millennium. Fr Neuhaus seemed most concerned that many would misinterpret the apology and the Church would look bad.
Wisely, the pope ignored these critics and went ahead with a singular liturgy on the first Sunday of Lent in 2000 (the “Day of Pardon”). He preceded it with a careful and important theological reflection.
Our individualism feeds off and also encourages an even more widespread notion, namely that we cannot judge the past but only “understand” or “contextualize” it.
The idea of moral neutrality is a disguise designed to deceive. Some claim the pose of “neutrality” and ostentatiously refrain from “moral judgments” about the past. Instead, they insist with studied vagueness that everything must be seen “in context” (a term no one really thinks about). Or they employ “disattribution” and other dodges. They say, for example, that “bodies were discovered,” as a way of not saying whose bodies they are and why they were buried and who killed them.
Catholics should not dodge this deadly discovery of 215 dead children. We claim to live by the standards, by commandments, of an eternal and unchanging truth that does not shy away from denouncing evil, both past and present. And so we must judge this news rightly as evil, as a terrible abomination in the sight of the Lord, as a great sin crying out to heaven for vengeance.
In Reconciliatio et Paenitentia, the late pope rightly recognized that “One can speak of a communion of sin, whereby a soul that lowers itself through sin drags down with itself the Church and, in some way, the whole world.”
In other words, “there is no sin, not even the most intimate and secret one, the most strictly individual one, that exclusively concerns the person committing it. With greater or lesser violence, with greater or lesser harm, every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family.”
What Do We Do?
Denunciations are only the beginning. What else must we do? Clinically now-standard practice in treating trauma recommends we do three things: create a place to tell this story in safety; tell it; and then and only then gradually move on from it.
The best place to tell the story is in the liturgy, which is itself a larger narrative of trauma (torture, false arrest, unjust execution of an innocent man) capacious enough to hold all our dolours while gently directing them and us to the final triumph over wickedness, sorrow, and pain in the resurrection.
Let us, from henceforth, keep this date of discovery of these dead children in our liturgical calendars as a day of fasting, penance, and mourning; let us don our dark vestments, deny ourselves festal foods, and lament these losses. Let this day become another “Holy Innocents” memorial in the sanctoral cycle of every year.
Let us write new propers for this day; let us read the psalms of lament; and let us, led by bishops and members of the Oblate community, kneel in public penance as the names of these children (if they can be discovered) are read aloud in a new litany of saints and martyrs.
Then let the longer, wider story of residential schools continue to be told, with this new chapter added to the existing history.
Finally, as this is happening, the Catholic church in Canada and elsewhere must seek genuine structural reforms to every aspect of her life so that never again can such abuses be committed or covered up.
Only if all this is done will we have any chance of healing the memories of aboriginal Catholics and all who have suffered, and continue to suffer, abuse in the Church, and from the Church. The healing of memories we need now is not just a pastoral phrase tossed off by some pope in a burst of ecumenical goodwill decades ago.
The healing of memories is a lifelong task for Catholics, as St. Augustine of Hippo long ago recognized: “The entire task in this life, dear brothers, consists in healing the eyes of the heart so that we may be able to see God.”
Let us get to work at once, and for as long as it takes. For the human heart finds it nearly impossible to see the face of God in a mass grave of innocents. If we do not confess and repair this evil, each of us, as the Lord warned, may merit having a “great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
Adam A. J. DeVille is associate professor in the theology-philosophy department of the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His previous article for the Catholic Herald was How (not) to be ambivalently synodal.
Photo credits: Girl’s dress on a cross, a memorial for the 215 children whose bodies were discovered by the former Kamloops Indian Residential School ; truck with memorial sign driving by the school; Kamloops Indian Residential School survivor Evelyn Camille, 82, next to a makeshift memorial; Eva William of Simpcw First Nation drums alongside others watch as a convoy of truckers and other vehicles travel in front of the former Kamloops residential school (photos by Cole Burston/AFP via Getty Images).