We live in an apology-averse, perhaps even a remorse-averse age. Even churchmen, when accused of severe wrongdoing, are as likely to spin, deny, or counteraccuse as they are to express repentance or seek atonement. That being the case, it is remarkable that Pope Francis offered a direct apology to a delegation of Canadian First Nations, Métis, and Inuit at the Vatican on the first of this month. His apology is especially noteworthy given Francis has a planned future apostolic visit to Canada, for which he could easily have waited had he wished.

“I also feel shame,” Francis said in his final speech to the Canadian delegation. He continued:

“I have said this to you and now I say it again. I feel shame – sorrow and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon. Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself: Jesus taught us to welcome, love, serve and not judge; it is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel.“

The remarkable nature of the apology itself aside, however, it remains true that apologizing is in most ways the easy part. It can be emotionally and even legally difficult, but fundamentally the speech-act of apology itself is very simple; one opens one’s mouth and says some version of “I’m sorry.” The genuinely tricky aspect of an apology is the effort one makes to follow up on it, to substantiate it in meaningful action, to make amends.

One action that often follows meaningful apologies for abuse of or atrocities against indigenous or colonized people is repatriation, that is, the return of religiously or culturally significant materials held in non-indigenous museums or other institutions to the indigenous communities to which they are meaningful. Some have reported that Pope Francis might order the Vatican’s museums, libraries, and archives to begin such a process. If so, it would presumably take a long time and involve quite a few additional faux pas and controversies, since repatriation is a fraught process that can involve many competing claims and attempts to balance rival goods. This is one reason why in addition to being logistically difficult it can, like many other types of follow-through on expressions of remorse, continue and even heighten the emotional difficulty of the initial apology itself.

There’s a common tendency among non-Catholics to act like the Vatican’s curation and archival processes are uniquely opaque and immoral, constituting plain and simple daylight robbery from everyone from indigenous people to Jewish communities to even the ancient pagans whose cultures and religions produced the statues of deities like Artemis and Athena that grace the Vatican Museum’s halls. It’s true that much of the Vatican’s collection was acquired through means that would be considered unethical today (and likely ought to have been even at the time), but unfortunately these sins–for that is what they are–have been committed by many museums and archives, from “Old Europe’s” British Museum and the Louvre to New World institutions such as the Field Museum in Chicago. This doesn’t excuse the Vatican having done it; quite the contrary. A religion such as ours that claims to possess the fullness of truth on faith and morals ought to hold itself, and be held by others, to a higher standard. If the Vatican does initiate a repatriation process, or at the very least conversations around related practices such as co-curation, it could set a moral example in atonement for the museum field worldwide.

The wider significance of Pope Francis’s apology is, then, a special case of the wider significance of any apology: it opens new paths for restitution and reform. In the words of one of the lead delegates, Gerald Antoine, “there is a possibility.” Antoine compared the apology to walking in the snow and seeing moose tracks–not the creature itself, but the path that one might take to it. Such tracks are the ones that we see and follow in the confessional as well, and in reconciliations with our own loved ones. The Church, in following these tracks, should set a moral example on a particular set of issues, but if and when it does, it should so based on principles known to all of us who have sought to make amends with others.

Image: Qu’Appelle Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, which the Catholic Church operated from 1885 to 1969. From Wikimedia Commons.

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Nathan Turowsky is a native New Englander and now lives in Upstate New York. A lifelong fascination with religious ritual led him into first the Episcopal Church and then the Catholic Church. An alumnus of Boston University School of Theology and one of the relatively few Catholic alumni of that primarily Wesleyan institution, he is unmarried and works in the nonprofit sector. He writes at Silicate Siesta.

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