As we were adjusting to the difficulties of the past eighteen months something more ominous and seemingly out of nowhere, punched us in the gut as members of the Canadian Catholic Church. Ground penetrating radar studies around abandoned Indian Residential Schools had found grave sites, first at Kamloops. Common immediate responses I heard among my fellow parishioners were feelings of puzzlement, shock, and anger and expressions of general ignorance of the issue. Here was our Church, standing shamed before the Canadian public and the world, as the continuing pain and suffering of indigenous people stood revealed.
We are now challenged by these events to examine our own, and our Church’s, position in society. We might be ‘settlers’ of recent or many generations’ standing. Some of us are indigenous, and for many, perhaps most, our backgrounds are complicated. Whatever our situation we can no longer ignore questions this poses about our faith, Church, and our pasts.
I had attended the Calgary hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in November 2013. I had witnessed the grueling and painful testimonies of those affected by the Residential Schools and its related intergenerational trauma, and I had stood in the lunch line listening to Commission Chair Murray Sinclair, whom I greatly admired. I have done post-graduate studies in the fields of imperial and colonial history and I had read some of the final reports published by the TRC. Still, the news out of Kamloops, and the eruption of emotion that followed came as a shock. Partly it was the way the reports came out. I had understood the events to be historical and not as enduring injustices needing resolution.
My first visit to the church of Holy Trinity on the Siksika Nation was in July when I met with the pastor, Fr. Long Vu, to discuss what historical records Holy Trinity had that were related to the community, and to let him know what was held by the Diocese. We have no Residential School records as the Diocese was not involved in operating the schools, but we were keen to know if there was anything which we could share that would fill in gaps in the existing information. Seeing the Nation for the first time reveals the stark beauty of the grasslands and the dramatic sweep of the Bow River valley as it meanders through its wide plain. I was pleased to be back again this week to attend a meeting of Bishop McGrattan and Chief Ouray Crowfoot with Council members and a diocesan team to see if we could establish some concrete ways of moving forward together. It was a good meeting. What struck me most was the graciousness and patience of the Siksika representatives, their quiet humour and commitment to get things done on the journey towards healing.
Looking out over the river valley where Treaty Seven was signed almost 150 years ago it is easy to imagine the gatherings that occurred there, and to feel the tangible presence of history. A mile or so distant, Crowfoot Residential School site, which is overlooked now by Holy Trinity Church, was demolished some years ago though its outline and footprint can still be seen. It has its own historical presence which asks to be acknowledged.
Inside the Blackfoot Crossing Historical Park there is so much to see and I would recommend you visit. What seemed to me most poignant was the space being created for the historical artifacts that once belonged to Chief Crowfoot (1930-1890), an original signatory of the Treaty, which are currently awaiting repatriation from a museum in Exeter in the United Kingdom. This is a sign of hope for the Nation – and of the erosion of the old power of colonialism.
Over these places, and in all of us who met together, I felt the spirit of God asking us to stay with the suffering and to work hard together and attempt to mitigate the ill effects of the Residential Schools. We cannot change history but here is an invitation we cannot ignore. We can seek the truths and lessons of our history by studying reliable authorities, records, the oral testimonies of elders and through honest, prayerful reflection. We are obliged by our God to do so. The past is not past – it is with us. But God is with us too.
Steeped in the ancient traditions of the Catholic Church and confused by contemporary secular culture, the Sacrament of Reconciliation intimidates a lot of people. Fr. John Nemanic gets that. He also understands why so many Catholics regularly participate in this grace-filled ritual—and he’s hopeful more will avail themselves of its sacramental blessings this Lenten season.
“The Sacrament of Reconciliation is the most difficult of the seven sacraments because we have to really look at ourselves honestly,” says Fr. Nemanic, the parish priest at St. Michael Catholic Community in the West Springs community of southwest Calgary.
While it can be difficult to talk about the mistakes you’ve made and the people you’ve hurt, “reconciliation is also a sacrament of growth. It helps us see where we are now—and who we aspire to be,” says Fr. Nemanic.
Biblical roots, contemporary blessings
The sacrament itself is rooted in biblical teachings, adds Fr. Fernando Genogaling of St. Luke’s in northwest Calgary. Instituted by Christ, Reconciliation invites us to seek forgiveness, express sorrow “and to take instruction on what to do in order to avoid making the sin,” explains Fr. Genogaling. “This sacrament is one of the ways we learn and experience the grace of humility. In return for confessing our sins, we receive an assurance of God’s love and grace. That is very powerful.”
“The Lord comforts us with the sacrament,” says Fr. Nemanic. The words, “I absolve you from your sins,’ are almost incomprehensible to penitents who enter the confessional with heavy but contrite hearts, says the priest. “This sacrament is so far-reaching. When people hear those words, they experience the reality that Emmanuel is with us. The closer we are to Him, the more the penitent opens up his or her heart and the more the Lord can come into that space and heal.”
For many penitents, the experience of forgiveness can be transformative. Fr. Nemanic recalls a story shared by renowned Catholic theologian Bishop Fulton Sheen. Bishop Sheen said a psychiatrist friend once told him that he marveled at the impact of Reconciliation. Whereas his clients paid him for counsel, Catholic priests gave counsel and peace—for free.
Parishes in the Diocese of Calgary hold regular confessional hours during the week on a year-round basis. While penitents can trust the confessional as a sacred and confidential space, people who don’t want to confess their sins to a priest they know can go to another parish, or attend a penitential service and talk to a priest they don’t know, says Fr. Genogaling.
He and Fr. Nemanic also recognize that people aren’t necessarily comfortable making a Reconciliation while facing a priest—and that’s okay, too. “I would say that 75 per cent of the people who come to reconciliation at St. Michael’s stay behind the screen even though they could just walk around the partition,” says Fr. Nemanic.
Those tempted to shy away from Reconciliation after a bad experience should consider what’s at stake, notes Fr. Nemanic. As he sees it, most people have also had bad experiences in at least one restaurant, but that doesn’t keep them from ever enjoying another restaurant meal. The same logic should apply to not denying themselves the blessings of Reconciliation.
And what would he say to a Catholic who is worried about not having received the Sacrament of Reconciliation for a while? “I would say, ‘just come,’” says Fr. Nemanic. Those who go regularly do so because they understand the grace it bestows. “If people would give five minutes a month, their lives would change immeasurably for the better because they’ve made themselves available to encounter the Lord’s mercy.”
Since honesty and contrition are essential to a good confession, Fr. Genogaling encourages people to spend some time examining their conscience before entering the confessional.
Written by Joy Gregory for Faithfully
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers