The news from Canada of mass graves of Indigenous children, buried secretly and anonymously, fills us with anger and a sense of betrayal. How could these things happen, especially in institutions of the church, administered by men and women dedicated to serving the Lord? Were similar acts carried out in the United States? Who should be held accountable? How do we ensure such injustices do not occur again?
As a special agency of the Holy See, CNEWA-Pontifical Mission has been entrusted the humbling privilege to serve the most vulnerable, the marginalized and the dispossessed through the Eastern churches. We live out the Gospel by lifting up, honoring and protecting the innate dignity of every human, from conception to natural death, as a beloved child of the one God. There is no greater commitment or priority.
However, when examples of the violation of the dignity of the human person surface — especially by people within the church — we have a moral obligation to recognize and accept responsibility for them, ask for forgiveness, listen to the anger and hurt, work toward a measure of healing, and apply what we have learned so as to ensure they never happen again.
I want to call your attention to a statement from CNEWA’s national director in Canada, Carl Hétu, and I invite you to join us in prayer and reflection with our sisters and brothers in Canada, who are grappling with this national tragedy:
The atrocities documented at several residential schools are abhorrent — crimes that cry out to our loving God. The Canadian government’s decision to assimilate First Nations, Métis and Inuit through residential schools was based on the prevalent colonial worldview that is unacceptable. It is a source of shame that many religious communities and Christian churches were involved in this tragic part of our history. We want to be authentic witnesses to our faith and we are committed to working for positive change.
Archbishop Marcel Damphousse of Ottawa-Cornwall said in a statement on National Indigenous Peoples Day: “As a church, we failed not only to be authentic witnesses to the goodness of Jesus Christ, but we sinned against our brothers and sisters in our care.”
Between 1880 and 1996, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families and forced to attend residential schools across Canada. Many suffered abuse or the lack of necessities, such as adequate food and medicine. We recognize and must accept the fact that Catholics were involved in the residential school system and that the wider Canadian community went along with this program of assimilation.
CNEWA, along with the rest of Canada, is taking time to listen and learn from our Indigenous brothers and sisters. Now that the painful silence is broken, reconciliation, which is long overdue, can and must go forward.
From our CNEWA Canada perspective, we assure you of our due diligence in making sure our programs respect the dignity of the local people we accompany in their daily struggles. We travel regularly to the regions we serve. We work with our offices and partners in the Middle East, India, Ukraine and Ethiopia to make sure that conditions reflect our expectations of the highest expressions of solidarity and dignity of the person. We are always cognizant of respecting local cultures, languages, history and beliefs.
We hope that you will join us in praying for and with the Indigenous Peoples in Canada. May the Lord of all Power bless our country and help bring forth true healing and reconciliation.
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world. Have mercy on us!
Msgr. Peter I. Vaccari is the President of Catholic Near East Welfare Association and its operating agency in the Middle East, the Pontifical Mission.