Pope Francis concluded his penitential pilgrimage to Canada in late July and both the pictures and stories of his encounters with Indigenous Canadians were moving. Also moving, were Francis’s numerous heartfelt apologies which acknowledged with candor and anguish, the devastating harm that had occurred to so many children who suffered abuse, alienation, sickness, death, and cultural genocide. More than 60% of the residential schools in Canada were Catholic and the pope did not shirk from the colonizing harm that has devastated lives and families, resulting in generational harm that still manifests to this day.
During the pope’s pilgrimage, it was evident to me how closely aligned his journey was to the goals of restorative justice (RJ). Restorative justice is historically rooted in the Indigenous practices of First Nation peoples of North America and New Zealand who, centuries ago, gathered in a peace circle in response to harm that had occurred in their communities. Restorative justice is a gift of wisdom and healing emanating from the rich Indigenous cultures, which has borne fruit broadly. Beginning in the 1970s and now today, restorative justice and has become a world-wide movement, effectively utilized across various disciplines and professions in response to harm. RJ has become a global movement due to its effectiveness at healing harm and restoring relationships, because it includes multiple relevant stakeholders, and because it is highly adaptable to various circumstances.
Restorative justice asks three fundamental questions: who was harmed; what was the nature of the harm; and how can the harm be repaired? One of the challenges with RJ is overcoming the significant knowledge gap surrounding it—many people either don’t know what RJ is, its proven effectiveness, or disregard it as ethereal or new-age. One of the reasons RJ is so effective is because it engages the particular needs of victim-survivors and their desire for healing and wholeness. It also promotes accountability because those who have perpetrated harm, if they take place in the process, come to a better sense of the effects of the harm they caused. Over the last several years, I moved from an initial skeptic of RJ to an ardent supporter, as I have taken part in numerous restorative justice processes in response to the harm of clergy abuse and leadership failures in the Catholic Church. The Spirit of God, which works for the healing and restoration of humanity, has been consistently manifest through the RJ sessions in which I have taken part.
Which brings me back to Pope Francis’s pilgrimage to Canada. This pilgrimage was consistent with principles and goals of RJ because his journey acknowledged the significant harm that had occurred to Indigenous people, expressed sincere contrition and sorrow for the devastating acts of abuse and cultural genocide, and included robust dialogue with victim-survivors and leaders about how this harm could best be healed. In fact, the request for the pope to visit Canada to offer an apology came out of a 2015 truth and reconciliation process, which listed several recommendations aimed at healing and restoration. While the wounds and the effects of this deep trauma will continue to be carried by victim-survivors, a step forward for the good of humanity was taken in Canada this summer and serves as a beacon for others who seek justice and healing.
As we continue our collective journey as a parish community and the call to meet the needs of our own wounded community in the Twin Cities, I have been moved by witnessing the dynamism of restorative justice and Catholicism —and the shared goals of promoting greater dignity, justice, and healing within the Church and broader society.