MY NAME IS Cristino Bouvette. One of the most consequential conversations I ever had was with my grandmother during the first years of my seminary studies. Most of her younger grandchildren affectionately called her Kokum, the Cree word for grandma. I had known for quite some time Kokum was educated in the residential school system and that it had been a source of indescribable pain.
I had just learned how intricately involved churches were in their administration, including the Roman Catholic Church, which is my church. It filled me with dread to even ask her this question, but I broached the topic as we peeled potatoes. "Kokum, based on your experience of residential school, does it offend you or worry you that I might become a priest someday?"
She dropped the potato and peeler, and closed her eyes with what I thought was pain. She grabbed my hand and said, "Oh, my boy. Nothing would make me more proud. I have known many good nuns and priests, and I know you would be one of those."
It is impossible for me to describe the influence that woman exercised in the lives of her immense family. Her matriarchy presided over us with dignity, virtue, joy and mercy. Though never a Catholic herself, my Kokum was a devoted Christian and student of the Word of God. She overcame suffering in her 99 years and 11 months of life because of her faith in Christ. That faith was handed down to her through three generations of living a truly reconciled life of Indigenous heritage and Christian confession.
Her great-grandfather was one of the first ordained Indigenous people in what was still not-yet Confederated Canada, Rev. Henry Bird Steinhauer. We already had a tradition of ordained ministry in our family.
These are the experiences and perspectives I bring with me into the discussions happening today in Canada.
I believe reconciliation must be distinguished from forgiveness. Forgiveness is an act of the will, a free decision to release someone from your debt. Independent of the remorse of the offending party, the victim may choose to forgive – not to let the offender off the hook of justice, but to set themself free from the bitter prison of resentment.
An apology uttered is nothing compared to an apology lived.
Forgiveness is always possible without reconciliation. Reconciliation matters though because it is the coming back together of multiple sides of a dispute, and it is a far greater sign of the Kingdom of God than a collection of people who have privately forgiven others.
Our Lord used agricultural parables to portray this Kingdom. "The Kingdom of God is as if a man would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow without his knowing how." This is how the Kingdom of God advances, like the hidden and humble seed which does its work beneath the surface but, with time, produces undeniable fruits. The same could be said for the work of reconciliation.
Verbal apologies, as important as they are – and diminished in value as frequently as they are repeated – are only words. For Christians like my Kokum and three generations of her ancestors before her, we are believers not in words only, but word becoming flesh. An apology uttered is nothing compared to an apology lived.
Nothing I could ever say would suffice for the suffering inflicted on my beloved Kokum in her residential school experience, so instead I sought to live it out. In God’s providence, my first two years of priestly ministry were spent in a parish which served the mission of Our Lady of Peace on the Tsuu T’ina Nation. It became my mission to simply and discreetly incarnate the work of reconciliation.
This was not something novel I undertook. I merely participated in a long lineage of Christian missionaries who believe all nations, including our First Nations, deserve to hear the saving gospel of Jesus Christ and to encounter Him in those who dare to represent Him.
That is the work of reconciliation. That is the only hope of pursuing a path of healing and peace in our country. That is the work our Church has done before, during and after the inexcusable mistakes of the residential school system. And that is the work, I hope and pray, that honoured my Kokum in this life and so honours her now in the eternal life she now lives in Christ.
is vicar for vocations & young adults, St. Francis Xavier Chaplaincy, at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Calgary