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Pope Francis in Canada – not your typical papal trip

While Pope Francis has undertaken dozens of papal trips in his nearly decade-long pontificate, his trip to Canada this week strikes a different tone – it is centered around an apology.

Pope Francis kisses the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as Chief Greg Desjarlais left looks on in Edmonton, on July 24, 2022. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

The pope has repeatedly described his week-long trip as a “penitential pilgrimage” intending to ask forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in the Canadian residential school system.

Where will the pope go in Canada– and what will his message be? The Pillar brings you a papal trip primer:

What was the residential school system, and how was the Church involved?

The residential school system in Canada was a network of boarding schools for indigenous students. Between 1863 and 1996, more than 150,000 children attended the schools, most of which were administered by Catholic, Anglican, and other religious groups. Until 1948, attendance for many First Nations children was mandatory, and children were forcibly separated from their families to attend.

The residential schools were part of a set of policies which amounted to “cultural genocide,” according to an independent Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report on the residential school system.

By some estimates, as many as 70% of the roughly 130 residential schools were connected to the Catholic Church. According to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, approximately 16 out of 61 Roman Catholic dioceses in Canada were associated with the residential school system, as were about 36 out of over 100 Catholic religious orders in Canada.

Evidence of children's remains among nearly 1,000 unmarked and no-longer-marked graves on the school sites provoked national and international scandal and outrage  last summer.

Tribal leaders have called on the Church to accept responsibility for its role in systematic effort to erase First Nations culture. The country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission also called for a papal apology.

What did Pope Francis say in his apology?

In his first official event Monday, a meeting with Indigenous peoples after visiting the site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, Pope Francis acknowledged:

“how the policies of assimilation ended up systematically marginalizing the indigenous peoples; how also through the system of residential schools your languages and cultures were denigrated and suppressed; how children suffered physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual abuse; how they were taken away from their homes at a young age, and how that indelibly affected relationships between parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren.”

He went on to say:

I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the indigenous peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.

Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic. What our Christian faith tells us is that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is painful to think of how the firm soil of values, language and culture that made up the authentic identity of your peoples was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this. In the face of this deplorable evil, the Church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children.

I myself wish to reaffirm this, with shame and unambiguously. I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples.

Is this the first papal apology over the residential schools?

No. In late March and early April of this year, a delegation of 30 Indigenous leaders, residential school survivors, and young people traveled to Rome to speak with the pontiff. At this meeting, Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask forgiveness of the Lord,” he said. “I want to tell you from my heart, that I am greatly pained. And I unite myself with the Canadian bishops in apologizing.”

The pope’s apology in Canada builds on his previous apology, as well as that of Canada’s bishops.

What else will the pope do on this trip?

Pope Francis will meet with Indigenous people in both Edmonton and Quebec. He will meet with former students at residential schools, hearing their stories of how the residential schools have affected them and their families.

The pope will celebrate Mass and will take part in the annual pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne.

His visit will also include events typical of his other papal voyages, including meetings with government officials, clergy members, local Jesuits, and young people of the region.

What happens next?

The Papal Visit to Canada secretariat, created by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, told The Pillar that the pope’s visit is an important step in the journey toward healing. But it is not the only thing needed to move forward.

“There is no single step that can eliminate the pain felt by residential school survivors or the victims of historical and ongoing trauma stemming from residential schools, but we pray that this Papal Visit will bring about greater healing for the victims and their families,” the secretariat said.

One Canadian pastor told The Pillar last week that he hopes the visit will open doors for further forgiveness. He cited a well-respected local elder who has called for a response to the pope’s apology as the next step in moving toward reconciliation.

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.

The Canadian bishops, and dioceses across the country, have held listening sessions and formed relationships to hear the needs of indigenous communities.

Indigenous leaders have told The Pillar that they would also like to see greater education and awareness in the Church about the indigenous experiences, and a full translation of the Mass into indigenous languages.

After Canadian residential school discoveries, what does ‘reconciliation’ really look like?
The Cowessess First Nation announced last week that at least 751 unmarked graves have been identified on the grounds of the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, Canada. The announcement comes less than a month after the remains of 215 children were confirmed to be buried at Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.

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