John Mock has an unenviable job these days.

Father Mock is the Roman Catholic priest of St. Elizabeth and St. Mary and St. Michael parishes in Cowessess, Killaly and Lemberg, Ochapowace Kahkewistachew, Saskatchewan. By all accounts he sounds like a humble and gentle man. According to “Toronto Star” reporter Alex Boyd recent revelations of anonymous gravesites in Kamloops and on the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan have caused him to experience a deep struggle as “a man of faith.”

Mock is reported to have said,

I have a very simple faith, despite all the ritual and everything else. And I honestly believe God is good, and that somehow, in becoming a priest, I was going to be helping people.

But when you’re confronted with your history? The history of Canada? The history of the church from the time Europeans arrived here? And the role we played in genocide? I mean, dear God, did they really think they were doing this for the highest of motives?

I sympathize with Father Mock and admire his willingness to struggle with the hard questions raised by the painful history of our country and of the religious institution in which he is committed to serve. It is challenging to bear the tragic stories of our past. It is hard to remain committed to serving the well-being of humankind through a flawed and often desperately broken institution.

But, there are no perfect institutions. The past is riddled with institutional life gone wrong.

Unquestionably, in the early years of the twentieth century, the church was far from being without sin as Germany engaged in its deadly dance with Adolf Hitler. But religion alone cannot account for Germany’s terrible descent into darkness.  

Religion didn’t create newspapers and radio broadcasts that helped millions of Germans to view Jews as less than human; that was the media. Religion didn’t place Hitler in power; that was politics and big business. It was educational institutions that indoctrinated a generation of children to feverish loyalty to the Fuhrer and to a vision of the unquestioned legitimacy of the superiority of the “Aryan” race. It was the legal profession, borrowing from race laws in the US, that crafted the Nuremberg Laws in Germany in the early twentieth century allowing Jews to be pushed to the margins of society in preparation for their destruction. It was the military who swore binding allegiance to Hitler as their ultimate commander-in-chief. It was the medical profession who surrendered “lives-not-worthy-of-living” to execution and used a captive population in Nazi concentration camps for horrifying medical experiments. It took a cooperative police force in many countries to round up those who were destined for transport to slaughter. It was science not religion that developed the deadly chemical zyklon B and then engineered the means for it to be used to massacre millions of “undesirables.”

If we are going to abandon religious institutions for the evils that have at times been perpetrated by religious people, we are also going to need to ditch the media, politics, big business, education, the legal profession, the military, medicine, the police force, and science. We will be left with a pretty small world if we demand institutional purity.

And yet, the egregious failures of the church cut deep, especially for a priest. I am committed to serving truth, goodness, love, peace, beauty and gentleness. How am I to function within an institution that has so often been captive to lies, self-interest, dehumanization of others, violence, horror and abuse?

In her recent two-minute “Dignify” reflection, the Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of BC, uses Parker Palmer’s expression, “the tragic gap,” to speak about the awkward reality of living in an imperfect world:

Bishop Greenwood-Lee suggests that we must always live in that difficult place between the harsh realities we know to be true and the vision to which we aspire. This is a painful place to occupy.

I feel for Father Mock as he seeks to hold the tragic truth he has been forced to see about his church, while at the same time staying faithful to the vision of hope and love that he believes his religious institution exists to serve.


addendum: it seems perhaps the lessons of the past may not have been entirely taken to heart: