To those gathered in St. Peter’s Square for the Angelus on Sunday, July 17, Pope Francis spoke of his historic visit to Canada (July 24 – 29) as a “penitential pilgrimage.” He asked that the faithful pray for him. He will need it, because the organizing committee had only two months to prepare for this trip. Not to mention the latest COVID-19 surge and the uncertain state of health of the aging Pope from Latin America. On doctor’s orders, he was forced to cancel two pastoral visits to Lebanon and Africa due to the knee pains that have affected his mobility.

Source - by Jacques Gauthier 

Nevertheless, Francis remains resolute when it comes to going out “to the peripheries” to encounter those experiencing the greatest suffering. He will be coming to Canada as a humble pilgrim of peace – listening to the Indigenous peoples, conversing and praying with those who were so deeply traumatized by the tragedy of the residential schools. The Church in Canada, and above all the Church in Quebec, is definitely in need of this action on the part of the Pope in order to be able to move forward on the long path of healing and reconciliation alluded to in the theme of his visit: Walking together. I believe he will be able to move people’s hearts with his genuineness, his simplicity and his humanity.

The tragedy of the residential schools

At the conclusion of the Angelus prayer, the head of the Church stated, “In Canada, sadly, many Christians, including some members of religious institutes, contributed to policies of cultural assimilation that in the past were in many ways seriously detrimental to Indigenous communities.” In March 2022, the Holy Father met with representatives of the Indigenous communities at the Vatican, following which, on April 1st, he made a public apology: “I ask God for forgiveness, and with my whole heart I want to say to you that I am deeply distressed. And I am united with my brother bishops in Canada in offering you my apologies.” He made it understood that he wished to come this summer and ask for forgiveness in person in their own land.

Francis’s historic visit will be an occasion for Catholics the world over to hear about Canada’s Indigenous peoples and to comfort those who were victims of spiritual and sexual abuse. This visit is also one of the recommendations contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report published in 2015. It has been a long time coming, but the moment has finally arrived.

Historically, the Indian residential school system was established by the Canadian federal government in the 1870s and remained in place until 1995. As a powerful engine of colonialization, its aim was to “kill the Indian in the child.” In order to accomplish that goal, management of these operations was handed over to various churches, mainly Catholic and Anglican, ignoring the fact that, through these children, Christ himself was being violated. “Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” (Mt 25:40) Nearly 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families and sent to schools with the intention of “civilizing” them. Three to six thousand of those children died inside the 130 residential schools located for the most part in western Canada, with at least eleven being established in Quebec.

In May 2021, the discovery of the remains of 215 children buried on the grounds of one residential school in Kamloops, B.C., reopened these wounds. In the aftermath, churches were burned and places of worship were attacked. First Nations chiefs urged restraint and insisted that acts of revenge and violence resolve nothing. Public apologies came from Justin Trudeau and from the bishops of Canada. Against this backdrop, preparations began to be undertaken for a journey to Rome by Indigenous representatives and a papal visit to Canada.

Zero tolerance on abuse

Pope Francis’s “penitential pilgrimage” will begin in Edmonton on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, an important place of prayer for Indigenous people, with whom several meetings are scheduled. On July 26, he will celebrate Mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in honour of the grandparents of Jesus, Saints Anne and Joachim. Two days later, he will fly to Quebec, where he will celebrate Mass in the company of thousands of Indigenous faithful at the Shrine of Saint-Anne-de-Beaupré. That evening, he will preside at Vespers at the Cathedral in Quebec City. His visit will end in Iqaluit in the Territory of Nunavut.

With his by now familiar spontaneity, the Holy Father will naturally touch on the themes so dear to him: themes that come up in his apostolic exhortation on the Amazon: justice and forgiveness, dialogue and freedom, integral ecology and contemplation, the flourishing of cultures and the proclamation of Christ. He writes in paragraph no. 7: “I dream of an Amazon region that fights for the rights of the poor, the original peoples and the least of our brothers and sisters, where their voices can be heard and their dignity advanced.”

He will surely condemn the abuse committed by members of the clergy and religious communities, as he did before a gathering of religious in the conclusion of an audience on July 14: “Zero tolerance on abuse of minors or disabled people, zero tolerance. […] Please do not hide this reality. We are religious, we are priests to bring people to Jesus, not to ‘consume’ people with our concupiscence.” He may address the subject of just compensation to be afforded to victims and measures to be taken to put an end to abuse. These things remain to be seen.

In conclusion, I would like to bring up a personal memory of my own. On October 15, 2012, I gave a talk on Kateri Tekakwitha at Notre-Dame-de-Lorette church in the Huron-Wendat village of Wendake. The pride and the joy felt by the Indigenous people attending this event were amazing. Kateri, their sister by blood, was about to be recognized as a model of holiness around the world. This sign of rapprochement between the Catholic Church and First Nations people proved prophetic. It came about through spirituality and the sacred, through the fusion of faith and culture, just as Pope Benedict XVI said in his homily at the canonization of Kateri: “In her, faith and culture enrich each other.”

May St. Kateri Tekakwitha accompany the Holy Father throughout his penitential pilgrimage. May she give new life to the hopes of her Indigenous brothers and sisters as they walk together on the path of reconciliation and forgiveness.