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I Was Angry With the Church — But the Pope’s Apology Gave Me Hope

Read this reflective narrative about church hurt.

The following article contains content that may be upsetting to some, especially victims of abuse within the Church.

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For Gabby, there is tension in her identity as a Catholic and a person of Filipino descent. She struggles with the way histories like her ancestors’ are often forgotten within the Church. Here, she reflects on how the only way to move forward is to first look to our past.

Because of my age, I am lucky to have avoided the pain of living through the more recent instances our Church and its leaders have failed us. Having been only two years old when the clergy abuse scandal of Boston made headlines, I don’t hold any direct memories of that time of reckoning and pain. Even before I was born, history tells me my ancestors were oppressed by the Spanish under colonial rule, after Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet brought Catholicism to the Philippines 500 years ago. Beyond these two examples, not only is it easy to list more offenses committed by the Church, but admittedly, I find it hard not to.

Knowledge is power – for better or for worse. Learning about the wide-reaching effects of colonialism on the Philippines dealt a powerful blow on my relationship with the Church. I had been happily Filipino-American and Catholic for most of my life, proud of the rich traditions that emerged from the intersection of my culture and my faith. I have fond childhood memories of my parish’s Filipino festivals: the colorful costumes, the traditional dances, and delicious food. Only later did I realize that the festivals commemorated the beginning of Catholicism as well as colonial rule in the country. All this time, my Filipino-Catholic community was expressing gratitude towards the Spanish colonizers who brought Catholicism to the Philippines — and never acknowledging the negative ramifications of those actions.

Last year, with this new realization, I attended a Filipino Mass celebrating 500 years of Catholicism in the Philippines. I responded to the joyful event with great bitterness – the colorful flags and jovial songs felt incompatible with my remembrance of the native Filipinos oppressed and erased by Spanish colonial rule. Unable to hold my tongue successfully, I found myself dropping sarcastic cheers of “yay, colonization!” and interjecting myself into positive conversations about the celebration with a “yes, but…”. I was the worst kind of party pooper. 

With 500 years and many generations between me and the original offense, it would be natural to question, “What do you have to be upset about? Why can’t you let the past be the past?” I realized I wasn’t directly angry at the act of colonization and its aftermath, but rather I was angry that people – the Church – had forgotten about it and just moved on. Underneath all of my internal conflict was a simple yearning to pause and acknowledge the people who might still be hurting, but with a packed schedule of performances, speeches, and food, there was no space for grief.

It is a painful experience to be stopped in your tracks by grief. It is even more painful when your grief holds you tightly to the past, while the rest of the world is moving forward without you. To me, it seemed that to keep up with the Church required an ability to forgive and forget its offenses. If that was the case, what would happen to those unable to escape such memories? 

I found an answer to my question in Pope Francis’ apology to the Indigenous communities in Canada.

Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage to Canada was made in response to the discovery of unmarked graves at a former residential school site, most of which were run by the Catholic Church. It is documented that more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken away from their families, forced to attend these schools. The agenda of these schools – to erase Indigenous culture through education and assimilation – resulted in the deaths of thousands of children and cultural genocide.

In his apology, Pope Francis does not shy away from the heartbreaking details of the original offense, even if they are uncomfortable and painful to remember.

Yet, it is right to remember, because forgetfulness leads to indifference and, as has been said, “the opposite of love is not hatred, it’s indifference and the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.” To remember the devastating experiences that took place in the residential schools hurts, angers, causes pain, and yet it is necessary.

Pope Francis’ example of seeking forgiveness shows us how remembering the offense – for both the forgiver and the forgiven – is necessary, even if it reawakens old memories and hurts. Only a full recollection of the wound in question can allow for God’s mercy to be received in its fullness.

By taking a pilgrimage into the past, to the lands of a people that have largely been left behind by a Church determined to push forward, Pope Francis provides a model for the Church – leaders and members – to follow. To build the Church’s future, one must first travel into the past and rebuild what had once been broken.

What if the entire Church chose to forgo forward momentum to pause, turn around, and take a pilgrimage into the past? Into lands we never knew? To learn someone else’s history, their pain, and say to them, “I see you. I will remember you. I will stay with you.” 

As a Church, we cannot force communities to suppress or forget their painful memories. We cannot speed up their healing. But we can slow down and bear a share of their suffering, so they don’t have to bear it alone. It may not advance the Church in a forward direction, but it will surely bring her members closer. And perhaps remembering will lead to healing, and one day, healing to forgiving.

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