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Pope Francis and the lesson on repentance, forgiveness in Canada

Pope Francis kisses the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as he arrives in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, on Sunday, July 24, 2022. [AP]

“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples.”

These are the words of Pope Francis in his repentance pilgrimage to Canada. It could be argued that the crimes done are buried too deep in the past to matter. Stirring ghosts of the past is risky because there is little control on the haunt they would cause. The contemporary generation having not been direct victims can be assumed to feel the historical pain less. Others can critique the Pope’s visit as merely an act with little consequence. But the Pope went any way. Why? Because there is a dimension of the good life that is strictly delivered through the conduits of repentance and forgiveness. Repentance and forgiveness are relationship stabilizers. For both to be achieved, humility is necessary. Pride makes either impossible.

Pope Francis is doing an apology trip in Canada on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church that enslaved children of indigenous communities. Missionaries forcefully put these children in boarding schools with the goal of instilling in them a new Canadian culture. In this identity stripping, Christians collaborated with colonial governments. In the residential schools, the children faced neglect and rampant physical and sexual abuse. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church. The forced assimilation went on for 150 years. As he begged for forgiveness from the assembly, Pope Francis was remorseful to tears. He pleaded with the church leaders, “May this never happen again in the Church. May Jesus be preached as he desires, in freedom and charity.”

A lesson for Kenya

Closer home, how often do Kenyans hear apologies from their leaders? Rarely do we hear institutions – including the church – acknowledging their contribution to the pain of Kenyans. Institutions and individuals in authority fail Kenya and keep on walking. They take Kenyans for a ride and abandon them without a word. They betray people’s trust and never return to face them. But why? Some leaders do not understand the value of repentance and the place of forgiveness. Repentance fuels a philosophy of vulnerability. Self-proclaimed perfection is self-deceit. Even the best have their beasts. Some people steer away from repentance and forgiveness purely because of pride. Pride sees repentance through the lenses of weakness. It regards forgiveness as an undesirable emancipation for people it would rather keep enslaved.

On the campaign trail during this political season, candidates have been tearing each other apart. Character assassination is a must-have skill. Friends become foes. Burning bridges is not too high a price to pay for power. The wonder is, do these competitors have a space of reconciliation? The untold story is that political manoeuvres have the effect of permanently severing relationships. Upon being shelled with an intense political arsenal, it is hard to just pick up your shattered bones and limp away. Instead, bitterness builds and schemes of revenge abound.  Campaigns are more than anything else, a war of words. They may look like an act in a play but eventually, the pain is real. These hanging clouds of political differences are a sign of bad weather including standoffs that unfavourably affect innocent citizens.  

The church should consider a reconciliation mass where contestants can repent all their campaign sins. In the spirit of desperation, contestants drug each other into dark places where some will never re-emerge. This is the premise on which politicians tie the death of their political career to a specific person. Corporate politics run in a similar way where jostling for positions ends up with casualties and those who win see the fallen as necessary collateral. 

Kenyans have been robbed and lied to. They have been abused. They have been used and abused. They have been neglected and subjected to unfortunate policies. Kenyans carry pains that are directly related to their citizenry. But the institutions and individuals that facilitate these pains feel nothing. They hide under the anonymity of structures and concepts such as joint responsibility. Arrogance is blind in that it never envisages tables turning. Instead, it imagines an existence in perpetuity. But anticipating the reality of shifts builds a spirit of moderation. We need not wait 150 years to seek forgiveness while we have a chance to create a culture of vulnerability today.

Taking responsibility

Repentance is often perceived as a personal practice. But the Pope took responsibility and sought forgiveness from the afflicted people on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. To the extent that nations and institutions err, they too should mount onto the repentance altar.

Governments should repent. They sin a whole lot. They collect taxes knowing sure well that they have no will to seal the holes so as to secure taxes for the purposes of public good. They sin by not investing enough to defend the lives of every citizen, and even they shed innocent blood.

Governments sin by not administering justice to all, leading to the oppression of the just and freeing of the guilty. They sin by lying to the people, giving them hope of a political kind that they know will not translate into abundance. Governments sin when they have no heart for the widow and no regard for the orphan. They sin when they restrict the ability of the people by making a privilege what is essentially a right. Governments sin when they fail to perpetuate a culture of merit and by this replace hard work with hard theft.