Pope Francis recently made a repentance trip to Canada. His mission was to apologize for the institution of the Catholic Church in Canada, which established boarding schools over a hundred years ago to educate Indigenous children in the customs and culture of Western civilization.
Catholics were not the only religion to engage in this massive effort to turn Indian children into Western-educated children. The Protestant denomination of Christianity also participated in this effort, but it is clear that Catholics operated over 70% of these schools. This was the beginning of a nightmare not only of cultural genocide but also of massive child sexual abuse and murder. The discovery of mass graves of children revealed this horrific story to the world.
Appearing before the indigenous community, the pope said: “I would like to begin what I consider to be a penitential pilgrimage. I have come to your native lands to tell you my pain in person, to implore forgiveness, healing and reconciliation from God, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you.
The pope then acknowledged the crimes against the indigenous peoples of the Maskwaci lands. He quoted Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as saying, “Yet it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, the opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference… and the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference.
Pope Francis then identified the crimes against the indigenous population.
“Again, I think back to the stories you told: how assimilation policies ended up systematically marginalizing Indigenous peoples; how also, through the residential school system, your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken from their homes at a young age and how this indelibly affected the relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.
Then the pope offered his full-throated apology and plea for forgiveness.
“Before this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores forgiveness for the sins of her children” (cf. JOHN PAUL II, Bull Incarnationis Mysterium [29 November 1998), 11: AAS 91 140).
“I wish to reaffirm it myself, with shame and without ambiguity, I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.”
The reaction of survivors and generations who remember these events from the stories told to them by their descendants indicates that they appreciated the strength and sincerity of his speech, and I am sure there was a certain degree of healing that day.
I hope for the day when another religious leader will take a similar journey of penance for the crimes of his nation and his church by speaking out to incite war and murder in the name of his faith. I am referring to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, who stood with President Putin to defend and support Russia in this brutal war aimed at destroying its so-called Ukrainian brothers.
The Ukrainian Church has since broken away from the authority of the Russian Church and received permission from the Orthodox Church of Turkey, which is the central authority of the Orthodox Church in the world.
On the other hand, Kirill continues to support the massacre of his co-religionists in Ukraine and alludes to the ridiculous lie that the Nazis are in Ukraine and that so-called other “external forces” are responsible for this war. Putin and Kirill are sinful partners in this unprovoked war and now have their blood on them for the thousands of Ukrainians and Russians who lost their lives. Patriarch Kirill encourages Russian soldiers in their efforts to extinguish his own Orthodox co-religionists in Ukraine. Will there come a day when Kirill or his successor will make atonement for the crimes of religious indifference against Ukraine?
We have seen this unholy alliance in the past when religious leaders aligned themselves with the dictators of their country. Many churches in Germany and other Nazi-allied nations and their churches during World War II justified the annihilation of the Jewish people and other peoples in the Nazi genocide.
Putin is using Kirill to give him the legitimacy to wage this brutal war against Ukraine. In Russian history, a slogan created in 1832 by Count Sergey S. Uvarov, Minister of Education from 1833 to 1849, has come to represent the official ideology of the imperial government of Nicholas I (reigned 1825-1855 ).
The guiding principle behind the ungodly and profane alignment between dictator and religious leader shaped Russian imperial rule and was known as “orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality”. As we see with the unholy partnership between Kirill and Putin, nothing has changed and this ideology still applies today in Russia.
Religious leaders have choices to make between the rites of their religious traditions and the correctness of their moral conduct. Pope Francis made the right and bold move in his atonement for the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
I can only pray that Kirill’s indifference to his own Orthodox Christian suffering will be exposed and condemned by the future leaders of his own church. Indifference is, as Wiesel said, the opposite of life and it is the crime of which Putin and Kirill are accused in this horrible war.
Rabbi Brad L. Bloom serves Congregation Beth Yam. He attended the University of Wisconsin and lives on Hilton Head Island.