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(The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday, July 23, 2022)

My teens call me “Papi” and “Paps” these days. “Good morning, Papi.” I don’t mind. It’s from “Papa,” the origin of “Pope.” But I’m no Catholic. I’m just a dad who’s happy to find some heart and courage and brains, happy to get the kids further along life’s yellow brick road in one piece.

My neighbour is a devout Catholic. He’s also more experienced in fatherhood. So, not long ago I asked, “How’d you deal with this?” He said, “You know, Thom. It’s been a journey.”

Who’s not on one of those?

Consider the 35-year-old who divorced her hopeless mother. She wrote the book, “Divorcing a Parent.” The daughter didn’t see her for three years. Then one day the phone rang. It was her mom. “I’m sorry,” she said. Like magic older than time, the words changed that daughter’s life. Healing began.

If the research didn’t tell us, which it does, then the stones would shout the news. Forgiveness, both giving and receiving, is crucial for our well-being. “Sorry” may be the hardest word, even the cheapest word, if spoken as a glib social nicety, or because of some relational manipulation. But say to someone you’ve hurt, “I’m sorry,” with the right spirit, and the right gesture, and watch the walls come down.

I suspect that some Catholics – there are 1.2 billion worldwide – might want to divorce their church now and again. It’s easy for any church, like any institution, to think more of itself than it should. Just like any person. Most of us (and this is embarrassing) aren’t clever enough to hide our own pride. A reader once wrote me, starting with, “I read your arrogant article.” Thank you.

In either case, Pope Francis now has something to say.

Francis is Pope Number 266. I was near him once in Istanbul. Historically called Constantinople, Istanbul, even in today’s Islamic Turkey, remains the seat of the Orthodox Church. Francis was there to build bridges. By chance, I was there, also near the renowned Hagia Sophia, Greek for “Holy Wisdom.” “Papa! Papa!” This, from onlookers who weren’t even Catholic.

It’s when Francis visited East Africa, though, that he changed my life. For one youth rally, some 150,000 Ugandans gathered, like for some rock star. But those African roads. My family, who then lived in Uganda, travelled those bumpy and dusty roads for the kids’ daily school commute, a horribly onerous daybreak ride of an hour, plus. Then, to prepare for the Pope’s visit, the Namugongo Road was paved. Smooth. Finally.

Now Francis’ apology, this one on Canadian soil, to Canada’s Indigenous people for the Catholic role in residential schools that past governments created to, at worst, “take the Indian out of the child.” These schools do have success stories. “Nobody’s interested in the positive, the joy in that school,” Cree storyteller and celebrated Canadian Tomson Highway once said of his own experience. Still, others. Broken.

The Pope is scheduled to arrive in Edmonton tomorrow. It’s something. Papal apologies don’t grow on trees. It took 359 years for a Pope – it was John Paul II – to apologize for the so-called “Galileo incident” when Galileo was arrested and banned for teaching that the earth actually orbits the sun.

Now a different road is being paved. It brings us closer to home. Closer to the mind of God. Closer to each other. So it’s a good time to be still. With a listening ear. An open heart. Turned away from voices of anger and cynicism and naval-gazing that can easily fill the chatter of our time.

Of course, there are always other roads. The road to hell, for example, is said to be wide. The road to “I’m sorry” is something entirely different. It’s more of a path. Narrow. Less travelled. And running right through where you (or I, or the neighbours) have to pass. It’s a good place to go. Otherwise, instead of growing free, we’ll just grow old.