The last time the Pope visited an Indigenous community in Canada was in 1987, when John Paul II stopped in Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, on the lands of the Dehcho First Nations.
The, he praised the role of Catholic missionariessaying the “renewal of your [Indigenous] the culture and traditions you know today are largely due to the initiatives and continuous efforts of missionaries.”
“[Your ancestors]“, he said, “knew instinctively that the Gospel, far from destroying their authentic values and customs, had the power to purify and uplift the cultural heritage they had received”.
Thirty-five years later, Pope Francis is expected to deliver a markedly different message on his first visit to Canada and Indigenous communities, a trip the Roman Catholic leader recently called a “penitential pilgrimage.”
A journey of spiritual penance.
“Historically, papal trips were meant to reinforce the authority of the pope…created to make everyone realize how great the pope is, the Catholic Church is,” said Massimo Faggioli, Vatican expert and professor of theology. at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. “This trip…is a spiritual humiliation, in a good way.”
Faggioli says such a trip was inconceivable just a year ago, when Canadian bishops and the pope were still ignoring calls to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in abuse of Indigenous children in residential schools .
But he says Francis, 85, who is dealing with mobility issues related to his knees and sciatica and has canceled other trips this summer, understood the grave risk of forgoing this one – just like those who advised him.
“Canada and the residential schools represent the clearest example of how the crisis of violence turned into something different,” Faggioli said. “This is no longer clergy sexual abuse, but this is cultural abuse, abuse of authority, cultural genocide. This is a great monster of a phenomenon.”
And tackling it, he says, is crucial to the survival of the Catholic Church as a moral authority in Canada.
Yet the six-day trip to Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit is fraught with political risk for the Vatican and the Canadian bishops.
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Vatican watchers say senior members of the institution worry about how to walk the fine line between making more honest admissions of their systemic responsibility for the abuses while keeping the abuses in historical context.
And, observers say, Indigenous groups in Canada have been less easily appeased than other groups to whom Catholic leaders have apologized in the past.
Colonization and conversion
In late March, a delegation of Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors and elders met Pope Francis at the Vatican, where some called on him to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century papal edict that justified colonization , the conversion and enslavement of non-Christians and the seizure of their lands – and, according to Indigenous leaders, influenced the Indian Act of Canada.
There was also asks the Vatican Museums to return indigenous artifacts and works of art – from a human face mask from Haida Gwaii to a rare Inuvialuit kayak in the western Arctic. Many items were donated to the Vatican a century ago, but indigenous delegates question how voluntary the donations were, given the power imbalance at the time.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni did not rule out the possible return of the artifacts during or after the pope’s trip.
“We’ll see what happens in the next few days,” he said this week. “But there may be time and space after the trip for museums and Indigenous communities to connect.”
But Vatican watchers say that while the demand to revoke the Doctrine of Discovery is understandable, it is very unlikely the pope will do so, given that the decree was replaced by one with the opposite message at the end of the 1800s.
“Those [decrees] no longer rule the Church,” said Antonio Hofmeister, a Brazilian priest who lived in Edmonton for three years and works at the Vatican. “They are not part of the doctrine of the Church because other doctrines were issued after – which say nothing can justify colonialism.”
Despite possible discontent on behalf of Indigenous groups, observers say the Pope’s trip to Canada is notable for its exclusive focus on righting wrongs done by the Catholic Church to Indigenous communities.
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Other popes have apologized on trips abroad – John Paul II did so for Catholic anti-Semitism when he visited Germany, the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and Yad Vashem – World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Israel. But, says Faggioli, that apology was part of a bigger journey and was delivered with some self-congratulation.
“These speeches came with the papacy acknowledging how far we have come in dealing with non-Catholics…So it was a celebration of accomplishments as well as an acknowledgment of past mistakes,” he said.
No such celebratory message is likely to be delivered on this trip, he said, a view shared by Canadian Cardinal Michael Czerny, who will be part of the pope’s entourage in Canada.
“This is a very specific situation. This is partly in response to the TRC’s request [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] request for an apology from the head of the Catholic Church,” Czerny said. ” By accepting [its] negative evaluation of the apologies already issued by certain Catholic entities in Canada, and in acquiescing to the request for his personal involvement, Pope Francis is showing humility.”
What a personal visit means
The TRC report, released in 2015, denounced the schools – more than half of which were run by the Catholic Church – as part of a policy of cultural genocide of indigenous peoples and included among their 94 recommendations for healing an apology official from the head of the Catholic Church.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made a separate request for a papal apology in 2017. The pope denied the request at the time, a move championed by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which said the Catholic leader recognized injustices suffered by Indigenous peoples but could not personally apologize for residential schools.
When in 2021 First Nations announced they had located what are believed to be unmarked graves on the grounds of many former residential schools, pressure grew for Canadian Catholic bishops and the Pope to present official apologies.
Yet Czerny says this trip goes beyond the apologies Francis made in the Vatican to the visiting First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations, when on April 1 he asked for forgiveness for “the deplorable conduct of these members. of the Catholic Church”.
“It’s the start in person, at the cost of a great personal effort,” he said, referring to the pope’s mobility problems due to knee problems and sciatica. “To sit together, to listen, to pray together, to deepen…. True reconciliation takes time [and] dealing not only with words but with gestures.”
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivor Society can be reached toll free at 1-800-721-0066.
A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.