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Prepping for a papal pit-stop

When Pope Francis arrives in Canada next week, the first official stop on his itinerary is the community of Maskwacis, just south of Edmonton, where the pontiff will visit the site of a former residential school and meet with communities who have been impacted by these schools and their legacies.

Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church.

Pope Francis will have a gathering with the Indigenous community at the pow wow grounds, where chiefs and delegations will process in traditional regalia. The pope is expected to speak there and renew his apology for the harm caused by the residential school system, which the Catholic Church played a large role in administering.

But before these high-profile events, the pope will make another stop – at nearby Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church.

The actual visit to the church will be brief – probably around 10 minutes. Pope Francis will have an opportunity to use the restroom and to pray, before beginning his official meetings with Indigenous peoples and members of the local parish community.

But even such a brief papal visit requires months of preparation.

What does it look like to get ready for a papal visit? What kind of planning is involved? What are the practical considerations that must be taken into account?

The Pillar spoke with Fr. Roger Rouleau, who serves at Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, to learn more about how the priest and his parish have been preparing to welcome Pope Francis next week. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s talk about the practicalities of preparing for a papal visit – even a very brief one. What goes into preparing the church building?

Have you done any renovations, clean-up, painting?

Oh, yes.

So we had the inside of the church - most of that area needed a fresh coat of paint. I don’t know when the last time was that it was painted, but it’s probably been 10, 15 years or so. So just a little spruce up.

We’re having the floors re-waxed this week, as we speak. The entry doors were repainted over the weekend. And then just a little bit of landscaping.

The province [of Alberta] stepped up and has replaced four of our sidewalks, has paved our parking lots and all the roadways around the church and the pow wow grounds where the Holy Father’s “Popemobile” will have to travel.

So again, a huge collaboration from all levels of government and church here. It’s been really exciting to see it come together.

It’s incredible, the amount of details, and we’ve had to do in about four months, what Rome usually says should be done over about 72 weeks.

Somebody was joking the other day that we may have caused some trouble, that now Rome will expect everybody to do it in four months in the future. But it’s been a really tight timeline. And obviously we couldn’t get everything done that we would like, not everything will be perfect the way we want it, but I think it will go smoothly.

So it has been quite something. I know everybody has worked incredibly hard, and everybody’s a little stressed.

What was the cost of everything? How much do you spend when the pope is coming over?

For the church, our portion was going to be somewhere between $5,000-6,000. And basically that’s relating to the physical building of the church and the grounds. We’ve had several hundreds of dollars of flowers donated that we’ve been able to plant around the facility just to make it look nicer. The waxing of the floor is actually someone who just donated that labor. It’s a parishioner in my other parish here in the neighboring town. Then as far as the cement and the parking lot, I have no idea what those costs are. And I’m sure that there are additional costs that have been dealt with through the organizing committee and the diocese that I’m not aware of.

Do you receive any guidance from the Vatican, like a protocol sheet? Do you know what to do?

There have been some instructions.

I haven’t received a document per se, but we’ve received some instructions. They are fairly strict on what is possible. Our parish church is not technically an official stop. It is more of a practical stop, and an opportunity for him to pray before he begins the official visit.

So we’ve been told this is a five-minute stop where the incoming pastor and myself may get to say hello, but that’s about it. They’re very tight on that, especially with his health and his age. We would rather him spend the time with the community.

Are you supposed to put out water or coffee or snacks for the Holy Father? How do you decide what to offer?

I was actually thinking about that the other day, that we might need to have something. Because I know when it comes to the papal Mass, the following day, they gave us a pretty strict outline of what has to be done in the sacristy, including snacks and beverages and what-not. But they haven’t issued that for the church.

We’ll have something on hand, but I haven’t decided what yet.

Who handles the security preparations?

It’s been extensive. We’ve actually had the Swiss Guard and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), we have had the national and provincial levels. It’s been quite a big [effort…The Vatican has] teamed up with Global Affairs Canada to coordinate all of the security protocol aspect of things.

And we had one of the advance visits that was specifically security-oriented. It was interesting. We were already talking about replacing some of the sidewalks where the pope would have to drive, because it wasn’t wide enough. And they recommended doing that, but then we needed to have the RCMP present when we’re pouring the concrete to make sure that nothing untoward was done underneath that was placed underneath it. So everybody was surprised, nobody expected that, but there’s a certain logic to it.

Will you spend any time alone with the pope when he’s at the parish?

Not alone, no. Inside the church there’ll be myself, the new pastor coming in mid-August, the sisters who’ve been serving the parish for 20-some years, and a few of the local elders, especially those who’ve been former students at the school.

And that’ll be maybe 10, 12 of us inside the building.

Were you able to invite anyone personally to the public event – your parents, or anyone like that?

You know what, I didn’t even try. This particular event is for the Indigenous peoples and we really wanted to keep that focus. We were able to secure a number of tickets for our parishioners in Maskwacis to make sure that our Catholics, our practicing Catholics in the community can be present. We think that’s important that they be there to receive the pope and not be left out. But for the other neighboring parishes and I know some of my other parishioners are rather disappointed the focus here really is coming to visit the Indigenous peoples, that’s the heart of his pilgrimage here.

My mom and dad were actually with me when I got the initial call from the archbishop. So they’ve kind of known from the beginning. My family knows the impact and the if I could put it this way the symbolic weight of the pope coming to the reserve to be with the Indigenous people in their home like that, they understand that very well. And they’re all happy and excited for that.

How did you react when you found out the pope would be visiting your church?

Well, it was pretty exciting but I couldn’t tell anybody. I got a call out of the blue from the archbishop about March 28th or 29th, saying that he was coming over on Palm Sunday with 20 people from the Vatican to check out if it was possible [for the pope] to come to the church. And Palm Sunday was 10 days later. I had to tell a couple people so that we could make sure everything was ready to receive the archbishop and the initial delegation to come check things out.

But it was all pretty hush-hush to some extent. And so it was exciting and yet it could be frustrating sometimes not to be able to share that excitement with everybody.

Then that Sunday, obviously, we had to tell people why a delegation from Rome was there. We said we were putting forward a proposal. Now I had already understood from the archbishop that it was more than a proposal, but that’s the line we had to use at that point for some time.

And we had a couple visits from delegations. And then when the news was officially announced by Rome here at the beginning of July, I think it was, then I was free to be able to say, “Yes, this is happening.”

Because with the Holy Father’s health, nothing’s official until it’s official.

How did the community react?

For the most part they’ve been very excited to receive the Holy Father. There’s been some incredible collaboration. The town of Maskwacis has four different reservations that link together in this town site. And the four chiefs have been working together. One of our elders said, “This is one of the first times we’ve managed to get them to work together.” So there’s a lot of good will here to receive the Holy Father.

Everybody knows the privilege that of all the places with former schools, he chose us. And they’re really excited to welcome him. Of course, there’s always a little underlying tension. There are some elders who are afraid that we can’t get it together in such a short timeline. Some others, based on their hurt, are still a little resentful and not really ready to receive the Holy Father. But perhaps that’s one of the reasons, we could say, why it’s so important for him to come here. The [Indigenous] delegation went to visit him in March, and now he comes to visit them and he visits them in their home really. And that’s such an important thing.

And if you do get a chance to speak with the pope briefly, what do you plan to say?

That’s a good question. I’ve kind of been running through in my head just a couple of words of hello. My Spanish is a little bit rusty. I was fluent 20 years ago, but we’ll see. Again, once things get into play, I’m almost just along for the ride because everything is decided by other people. So at the end of the day, we’ll see what happens and we’ll go along with what happens.

How are you feeling as the trip approaches?

Well, I’m excited. I am nervous. Again, there are still a lot of unknowns because I’m not in the top branches of the coordination. So I feel like there’s still so much I seem to don’t know, but it is exciting to be able to receive him. I’m one of the few priests in the country here who will ever be able to say that he received a pope in his own parish. He’s not just coming to my diocese or to my country, he’s literally coming into my parish church.

As you finalize preparations, what are you hoping to see from the pope’s trip?

You know, it’s been incredible to see how people have come together. Even the city of Edmonton has been a tremendous partner in all of this. And it’s incredible the doors that this has opened, everybody knows how impactful this will be for reconciliation and to push from history and scandal toward healing. I’m sure you’ve seen all the headlines over the years that this has happened, that has happened. The Church did this and didn’t do that. It’s all about the past. There’s a unique moment here that the Holy Father has grabbed onto and to be in the present with the people so that together we can move forward to a future of healing.

The elders have mentioned that themselves. One of our very well-respected elders here, even nationally known said, “You know what, it’s time for us to make a word of forgiveness.” He said, “I recognize not everybody’s there, but we have to start and to respond to the pope’s apology by offering forgiveness.” And I think that will in itself open some incredible doors and then we’ll have all the work to follow up with everything afterwards to keep going. This isn’t the culmination, this is the front door.

Correction: This article initially included an erroneous photo and reference to Sacred Heart Catholic Church, which will be a separate stop on the papal trip.

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