First Nations, Inuit and Metis residential school survivors, knowledge keepers, elders, and youth have wrapped up meetings with Pope Francis at the Vatican with an historic apology.
The delegation was there to renew calls for the Pope to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.
On Friday, the Pope said: “I am very sorry.” He also said he will come to Canada, but a date has not been set.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission released its 94 calls to action in 2015. Among them was a request for an apology from the Pope and for the apology to take place in Canada within one year of the release of the report.
A number of individual Catholic organizations, parishes and bishops have apologized to Indigenous children and their families for the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse the church inflicted on youngsters forced to attend the schools. One of the most recent apologies was issued last September by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A previous pope expressed “sorrow”
A common argument for why it took so long for an apology is that the issue was already addressed, say some experts.
In 2009, a small delegation led by Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, met with former pope Benedict to discuss the abuse and trauma at residential schools with the hope of securing an apology. Benedict expressed “sorrow” for what happened but did not apologize.
Christopher Hrynkow, a professor in the department of religion and culture at St. Thomas Moore College in Saskatoon, says some in the Catholic community saw this as enough of an apology. But he says the TRC asked for something different.
“Everybody understands the importance of the Pope in Catholic culture and what he represents,” Hrynkow says.
He adds some believe that because religious organizations had entered into a partnership with Canada, an apology rested with those specific groups and not with the corporate Catholic Church.
Jeremy Bergen calls previous statements from the church “wishy-washy,” because they didn’t fully acknowledge the church’s role in the schools.
“They’re sorry bad things happen but they don’t say what everyone’s kind of thinking: the church did it,” says Bergen, an associate professor of religious studies and theological studies at Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario.
Massimo Faggioli, professor of historical theology at Villanova University in Philadelphia, says he believes some in the Vatican perceived this “sealed the deal” for an apology.
The Church’s language
Apologies from the church are relatively new, says Faggioli. The decision to issue apologies started roughly 40 years ago when former pope John Paul II began his reign.
Bergen says apologetic language is not something churches are comfortable with.
In past years, church statements have used terms such as “repent, confess, or ask pardon or forgiveness,” says Bergen.
He says the Catholic Church needs to learn to speak a new language in order to better communicate with those who have been harmed by its actions. This includes words that make it clear what the wrong was, who did the wrong, and who’s responsible for it.
Support from bishops
Canadian bishops have been divided over the need for an apology from the Pope, says Joe Gunn, executive director for Centre Oblat – A Voice for Justice in Ottawa.
Pope Francis has led with the idea of a more consultative church. And Hrynkow says a commitment to visit Canada would have previously been met with hesitation from the Pope without a direct invitation from bishops.
The request from Canadian bishops had to be there and it wasn’t, says Gunn, who used to work with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
That changed last year with the discovery of unmarked graves at former residential school sites across the country.
“Now all of the bishops of Canada are saying, ‘You know what? It’s a really good idea for him to come here. He should visit. This is what needs to be done,’” says Gunn.
Coming to Canada
Had the Pope waited to apologize in Canada, it would have been a first of its kind, says Faggioli.
Never before has a papal visit been built around the issue of abuse, he says. Previous apologies have been made during papal trips but those were done behind closed doors or last minute.
Delegates at the Vatican say they still expect a more fulsome apology will come from the Pope when he’s on Canadian soil.
“The Canadian case is a big test because it’s new,” says Faggioli. “It’s no longer the sexual abuse against minors itself. But it’s a history of abuse that is sexual, cultural, civilizational, national (and) it’s educational.
After years of resisting such calls, Pope Francis on Friday apologized for the “deplorable conduct” of some Catholics in Canada’s residential school system for Indigenous children, saying he was “deeply grieved” by the stories of “suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse” from survivors.
Speaking to an audience that included an Indigenous delegation that traveled from Canada to the Vatican this week to press for an apology, Francis said he felt “shame” for the role Catholics have had “in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values.”
“All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” the pope said at the Apostolic Palace. “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.”
Francis also reiterated a pledge made last year to visit Canada, where he said he would be “better able” to show his “closeness.”
The pope has been under renewed pressure to apologize for the Church’s role in the residential school system after several Indigenous communities in Canada in the last year said that ground-penetrating radar had uncovered evidence of hundreds of unmarked graves at or near the sites of former schools.
Beginning in the 19th century, at least 150,000 Indigenous children were separated from their families — often by force — to attend the government-funded, church-run institutions, which were set up to assimilate them in what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said in a 2015 report was “cultural genocide.”
The report said children were punished for practicing their traditions or speaking their languages, and that many suffered various forms of abuse. It identified thousands of children who died at the schools, including from disease, malnourishment, by suicide or while trying to escape. Some were buried in unmarked graves.
The last school closed in the 1990s. Most were run by Catholic entities. The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches of Canada, which ran some schools, have apologized for their roles. But while some Catholic entities and local church leaders had apologized, Francis and his predecessors had not done so before Friday.
A papal apology on Canadian soil was among the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 94 calls to action.
In his remarks, Francis said it was “chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots and to consider all the social and personal efforts that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become intergenerational traumas.”
Francis met separately this week with Métis, Inuit and First Nations delegates. The delegation, whose visit was delayed by the pandemic, was made up of Indigenous leaders, elders, youth and residential school survivors, who shared stories of their residential school experiences and the effects that still ripple in their communities.
The delegates also pressed Francis to release records that could shed light on the identities of the children who died at the schools or went missing. Some have also criticized the Church for failing to meet its obligations under a class-action settlement with residential school survivors from 2006.
Others have called on the Vatican to revoke papal bulls of the 15th century that enshrined what’s known as the doctrine of discovery, which were used to justify colonization in the Americas.
As he often does, Francis on Friday lamented “the many forms of political, ideological and economic colonization” that “still exist in the world, driven by greed and thirst for profit, with little concern for peoples, their histories and traditions, and the common home of creation.” He did not revoke the papal bulls.
During a visit this week to an Indigenous community in British Columbia that last year said it had uncovered evidence of 93 possible unmarked graves, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who personally appealed to Francis for an apology in 2017 — said dealing with this “terrible” chapter of history required a response from the pope.
The federal government issued an official apology for its role in the residential school system in 2006.
Francis did not provide a date for his visit to Canada, but joked that it would probably not be in winter. He said he derived “joy” from the veneration of the delegates for St. Anne and “hoped” to be with them on her feast day. It’s in July.
On a recent Sunday, Father Al Risdorfer stands in front of an altar, flanked by the Maryland flag and an LGBTQ+ pride banner, with rainbow colors reminiscent of the stained glass windows that filter the church’s light.
As a cantor’s voice echoes off stone walls, parishioners line up to receive Holy Communion. No one is turned away.
Risdorfer tells Baltimore Fishbowl that the church community, Our Lady Undoer of Knots, wants to keep Catholic traditions alive while serving as an inclusive, nonjudgmental and affirming space for LGBTQ+ people, divorcees, and others who have been left out of the Roman Catholic Church.
“We’re a community,” he said. “We’re social justice-oriented. We have great fellowship with one another….We pray well, we play well, and we don’t have all the nonsense. We don’t have all the judgment. We don’t have all the condemnations. We don’t have all the division.”
On a mission to redefine what it means to be a devout Catholic, Our Lady Undoer of Knots is building an independent Catholic community that is welcoming to all, and trying to fulfill its social justice vision. It has been a rocky road for the church, trying to grow its parish while many Catholics are leaving the faith altogether, and amid social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. But still, the passion and community are growing.
Every Sunday at 6 p.m., Our Lady Undoer of Knots holds Mass at St. Mark’s On The Hill Episcopal Church in Pikesville, where they lease space. They also livestream the Mass and post recordings on their website, Facebook, YouTube, and Vimeo.
Path to priesthood
Although he was ordained four years ago, Risdorfer said he has always wanted to be a priest.
After high school, Risdorfer attended seminary for six years but left before taking his vows. And while attending graduate school to earn his master’s degree in organization management, he came out as a gay man – an identity that he said was also always with him, even before he had the words to express it.
Risdorfer, who has worked in human resources throughout his professional career with technology companies and nonprofits, said there are “an awful lot of transferable skills” between ministry and HR.
“I keep joking to people that I make the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, and occasionally I raise somebody from the dead in the HR job,” he said. “In HR, you get people that are just unmotivated and you kind of bring them back to life.”
Now, he and the other members of the community at Our Lady Undoer of Knots hope to motivate people to turn or return to the Catholic faith.
The church community also aims to promote social justice, which Risdorfer said is a tenet of the faith although many do not live up to the principle. Our Lady Undoer of Knots plan to assist low-income families and provide a safe space for survivors of conversion therapy and religious trauma, among other efforts.
After facing homophobia at another church, Risdorfer and his partner at the time – now husband, Tony Bono, a retired professional soccer player – searched for a congregation where they wouldn’t face discrimination.
They found a parish that was part of the Catholic Apostolic Church in North America (CACINA), a Catholic jurisdiction independent from the Roman Catholic Church. After a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized same-sex marriage, the CACINA church married Risdorfer and Bono.
When that church was looking for priests, Risdorfer volunteered to return to his studies. He was ordained as a deacon in 2018, and as a priest in 2019.
From there, Risdorfer helped found Our Lady Undoer of Knots in the Baltimore area, a parish under CACINA at the time. Our Lady Undoer of Knots has since left CACINA and joined another Catholic jurisdiction, Progressive Catholic Church International.
Our Lady Undoer of Knots has also revived the Baltimore chapter of DignityUSA, the world’s largest and oldest community of LGBTQ+ Catholics, which has not had a chapter in Baltimore since the 1980s. Dignity Baltimore operates as a ministry of Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
When Our Lady Undoer of Knots began in November 2019, it operated out of Risdorfer and Bono’s home in Howard County. Soon after, they began renting their current space at St. Mark’s, located at 1620 Reisterstown Road in Pikesville, where they hoped to cultivate the parish. Then, the pandemic hit.
Though their plans were stalled, Our Lady Undoer of Knots is still striving to grow in size and impact.
At odds with Rome
Risdorfer explained that Our Lady Undoer of Knots, the Marian devotion that the church community is named after, signifies the ability of Mary, mother of God, to help people navigate tangles and challenges in life.
Pope Francis has expressed some support for LGBTQ+ people, including saying that same-sex couples have the right to have children and that parents should not throw out their children from their homes for being an LGBTQ+ identity. But he has also said that while having a “tendency” for same-sex attraction is not a sin, acting on that attraction is sinful.
Risdorfer said those latter beliefs continue to force individuals to hide who they are and have turned many away from the faith. He added that the Roman Catholic Church also has also looked down on those of other backgrounds, such as those who are transgender, divorcees, and women or nonbinary individuals seeking to become leaders in the church.
“We figured the knot that needs to be untied here is how do we bring people back to the church, back to God?” Risdorfer said. “Because a lot of them, when they walked out of the church and walked out of the pews, they just kept on going.”
Our Lady Undoer of Knots holds a traditional Catholic Mass that Risdorfer said most “cradle to grave Catholics” like himself would be familiar with, from scripture readings to singing of hymns to Communion.
But they do not swear allegiance to Rome and all worshipers are welcome to be part of their church community.
In March, the Vatican released a statement saying that the Church does not have the power to bless same-sex marriages and unions, which they called “sinful.”
Catholic churches and dioceses, including the Archdiocese of Baltimore, also continue to promote a program called “Courage” that “seeks to help persons with same-sex attractions develop an interior life of chastity and move beyond the confines of the homosexual identity to a more complete identity in Christ.”
Risdorfer said LGBTQ+ people should not have to hide who they are to be part of the Catholic faith.
“We are not ‘intrinsically morally disordered,’” he said, referring to a 1986 Roman Catholic Church document that called same-sex attraction a tendency toward “intrinsic moral evil” and an inclination that is “an objective disorder.”
“We are good, we are children of God, and we’re not going away,” Risdorfer said.
A different ‘GPS’
Risdorfer said Our Lady Undoer of Knots has a different “GPS” – which stands for how the church community views “gender, power and sexuality” – than other Catholic churches, particularly those that are allegiant to Rome.
Last year, Pope Francis formally allowed women to give Communion, read during Mass and perform other tasks. But he maintained that women cannot become priests.
At Our Lady Undoer of Knots, people of all genders can be ordained as priests and take on other roles in the church.
There is also less hierarchy in their church’s power structure, which Risdorfer described as “more collaborative” and “not top down.”
Body and blood
While Risdorfer said about half of the parish is part of the LGBTQ+ community, those are not the only people they are looking to reach. They also want to connect with divorced Catholics; individuals who have had abortions; women and nonbinary people, as well as married people, looking to be ordained; and anyone else who does not feel represented in the Catholic church.
Vivian Hogan came to Our Lady Undoer of Knots after being unable to receive Communion at other churches.
Hogan divorced her first husband and married her second husband, whom she has been married to now for 49 years. But for most of her life, she could not receive Communion because her first marriage had not been annulled.
Though Hogan attended Mass at other churches on and off throughout her life, not being able to receive Communion for all those years weighed on her.
When she started attending Our Lady Undoer of Knots in November 2021, she said Risdorfer gave her “unconditional absolution” and she was able to once again receive Communion.
The Pikesville church is about an hour each way from her home in Damascus every Sunday, but Hogan said the community she has found is well worth the trip.
“It’s a much smaller community [than other churches],” she said. “Everyone knows one another and they’re very friendly and outgoing.”
Jared Dixon, also a parishioner at Our Lady Undoer of Knots, said many Catholic churches have “weaponized” Communion.
“It’s been seen as a reward for being a pious Catholic or pious Christian…. I don’t think that receiving Communion should be a reward for being good or [not receiving it] should be punishment for not being good. I feel like everybody should be able to approach the Lord’s table,” he said.
But Dixon, who is also the author of a novel in which characters navigate being gay in the Catholic church, said Our Lady Undoer of Knots is unlike other churches he has attended.
“You feel welcome the moment you walk in the door,” he said. “There’s no preconceived notion of ‘You need to be this way. You need to be that way. You can’t bring this part of yourself to church.’ We welcome you in every aspect of your life: however you show up, whoever you are, whoever you love.”
Welcome one and all
Destiny DiMattei, who is nonbinary, asexual and panromantic, sought a Catholic church that was affirming for LGBTQ+ people.
“I don’t have a relationship right now, but I want to know that wherever I am I’d be somewhere that that my partner and my relationship with my partner will be welcomed,” they said.
DiMattei, who is partially blind, reads from the lectionary in braille every Sunday. At Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they said they are able to not only provide their input but have those ideas respected.
“Everyone has as much impact as they have time for or are able to have…. I’m not just passively sitting around at Mass. I’m actually part of something,” they said.
John Hagens, a music minister with the church, was part of a group in college where he thought he was supported. But when he came out as gay and the group’s reaction was unwelcoming, he left.
“That was the one place where I felt like I could be safe in coming out to a group of people who I called friends and were really supportive of people,” he said. “I just didn’t have that experience. It went quite the other direction. I stopped feeling welcome in that community.”
He added “I was told all throughout growing up and all throughout high school and [college] that I was made in God’s image and God doesn’t make mistakes. And yet, here were these people who were supposedly leading the faith, telling me that I’m wrong and that I am sinful because of who I am.”
After he moved to Maryland to live with his partner Mike, they “bounced around to a few independent Catholic churches in the area” before eventually finding their “church home” at Our Lady Undoer of Knots.
“I never feel like I’m being lectured to,” Hagens said. “I don’t feel like someone is preaching at me. I feel like I’m just having a conversation with a good friend.”
Risdorfer said the church needs more members to tackle the social justice work they have planned, such as aiding economically disadvantaged families.
“We’re in this Catch 22: I can’t do a lot because I haven’t grown because I haven’t done a lot because I haven’t grown,” he said.
Some people have been turned off by the Roman Catholic Church’s values not aligning with their own, Risdorfer said. Others, particularly young people, have not had as strong of an inclination toward religion that previous generations have had, he said.
DiMattei said other Catholic churches reinforce the idea of “sacrificial love and giving until it hurts,” which has been harmful to them as a person with a co-dependency background.
“How do I not constantly have the urge to do for others to the point of hurting myself, where it becomes too much?” they said. “What is that line? That’s a knot I’m still trying to undo in my life.”
But at Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they are looking to do and give what they can without feeling pressured past those boundaries, balancing their personal wellbeing with others’ needs.
While the church has been working to undo knots, they also recently helped tie a new, more hopeful knot for Dixon and his now-husband Jerry. The couple were married by Risdorfer this January.
Over the past six years or so, Dixon said it became important for him to have a church wedding because he wanted that spiritual connection. But until coming to Our Lady Undoer of Knots, they struggled to find a Catholic church that would let them marry.
“Finding the right church that would marry me and honor my commitment that I would make to my husband was very important,” Dixon said.
As Our Lady Undoer of Knots continues to grow, Hagens hopes more people who have been shut out by the Catholic church will find what they are looking for with their community.
“There are people who are waiting out there to lovingly affirm your whole self and not judge you for whatever you bring to the table because you are a person of the community,” he said. “We are sinners just as much as that other person; there is no one that’s perfect. But we at Our Lady Undoer of Knots really want to provide a space where all are welcome.”