Pope Francis’s “Penitential Pilgrimage” to Canada’s Indigenous Communities

Pope Francis’s “Penitential Pilgrimage” to Canada’s Indigenous Communities


Twenty years ago, Pope John Paul II went to Canada for World Youth Day, an event held every few years to encourage young Catholics in their faith and to spark “the hope that springs eternal in the hearts of the young,” as he put it. Thousands of people joined an elaborate Way of the Cross procession through downtown Toronto, and then John Paul, who was eighty-two, presided over an open-air prayer vigil and celebrated a Sunday-morning Mass at a former airfield near the city. The event was said to have been attended by two hundred thousand people.

Pope Francis’s visit to Canada this week is more modest—he arrived on Sunday, in Edmonton, Alberta, returns to Rome on Saturday, and, most days, will take part in just one event each morning and afternoon—and a sombre mood attends it. The trip follows one that was scheduled for earlier this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan but was called off in June, on account of the Pope’s health. (At eighty-five, he suffers from a fractured knee, osteoarthritis, sciatica, and lifelong respiratory issues.) The cancellation prompted rumors that he will soon resign. In an interview, Francis countered those rumors, saying, “I have no intention of resigning, not for the moment,” and there has been no indication that this will be his last overseas trip. But his age and his health make it difficult for him to undertake any more grand “apostolic journeys,” such as his 2015 trip to New York City (where he addressed the United Nations General Assembly) and Washington, D.C. (where he addressed a joint session of Congress), or his visit to the Philippines that same year, which drew more than six million people to an outdoor Mass in Manila, likely the largest event in papal history.

Another reason for the sombre mood is that this trip was undertaken in response to the findings, released in 2015, of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that the Canadian government had launched to investigate the role of the Church, among other governing entities, in the historical mistreatment of that nation’s Indigenous peoples. On Sunday, he met with Indigenous representatives at the airport in Edmonton; then, on Monday, he travelled fifty miles south to the hamlet of Maskwacis. There, seated in a wheelchair, he addressed other representatives, saying, “I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you.” The apology that followed was striking in its openheartedness. “I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” the Pope said. A few moments later, after asking all those assembled to bow their heads together in silent prayer, he added, “Let us allow these moments of silence to help us interiorize our pain.” The apology suggested that regardless of how long Francis remains Pope, the trip will serve as a capstone to his tenure. Much of his papacy has involved redressing wrongs committed by the Church, and he has done so by striking a note of penitence that’s relatively new to the papacy—but that he has now established as an essential part of the office.

Canada was colonized, in part, by French Catholic missionaries, who, beginning in the seventeenth century, built churches, schools, hospitals, and orphanages, and converted many Indigenous people to Catholicism, often with grotesquely mixed motives, forcing them to abandon their traditional ways of life as a condition of participation in a putatively Christian society. Canada subsequently became a British colony and then, in 1867, a self-governing state. The new government partnered with Christian churches—Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, United Church of Canada—to open residential schools and homes for First Nations peoples, many of whom had been forced off their lands. There were more than a hundred and thirty such schools, and, between 1883 and the late nineteen-nineties, they housed some hundred and fifty thousand Indigenous children. More than half were run by Catholic orders. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, spurred by years of complaints and protests from former students and their descendants, found that conditions in those institutions were often inhumane. Children were separated from their families. Priests and nuns abused them physically and sexually. They often went hungry and, owing to poor health conditions in the schools, suffered illnesses, such as tuberculosis, at disproportionately high rates. Several thousand children died, and many were buried in unmarked graves.

Various bishops and other Church leaders in Canada issued apologies. Pope Benedict XVI, in fact, had expressed “sorrow at the anguish caused by the deplorable conduct of some members of the Church” during a meeting with Indigenous activists in Rome in 2009, but the commission, in June, 2015, called on Pope Francis to travel to Canada and apologize there “for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools.” The next month, during a trip to Bolivia, the Pope apologized for Church members’ past mistreatment of Indigenous peoples in the Americas. But Canada’s Conference of Catholic Bishops rebuffed the commission’s request in 2018, ten months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had raised it during an audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican. The confirmation, in June of last year, of the existence of unmarked graves bearing the remains of two hundred and fifteen children from the Church-run Kamloops Indian Residential School, in British Columbia, who likely died of causes ranging from epidemic disease to suicide, brought fresh urgency to the request. This past March and early April, representatives of Indigenous groups met with Francis in Rome. He apologized for the “deplorable conduct of members of the Catholic Church” toward them and their ancestors, and said that he would go to Canada to make further amends and to continue the dialogue in their “native territories.”

This week’s visit, then, is, as Francis has called it, a “penitential pilgrimage.” On Tuesday, in Alberta, he will celebrate the feast of St. Anne and meet with Indigenous pilgrims. On Wednesday, he will continue on to Quebec City, and to a Catholic shrine on the St. Lawrence River, where he will bless a statue of St. Kateri Tekakwitha, a seventeenth-century Algonquin-Mohawk woman who was canonized in 2012. The trip will conclude with a three-hour flight north to Iqaluit (population eight thousand), the capital of the Arctic territory of Nunavut, where he will meet with former students of a school that stood there. He will say just two Masses during the trip, both of which will make use of vestments, music, and rituals that blend Indigenous and traditional Catholic elements, reflecting a process called “inculturation.”

This trip, and the attention being paid to it, signal a real shift in the sense of what the job of a Pope should be. In the past, Popes didn’t even acknowledge transgressions of the Church (the “spotless bride” of Christ), much less apologize for them. That tradition began to change only in recent decades. In March, 2000, John Paul (who, during papal trips to Africa, had deplored the role of Christians in condoning the “sad offense” of slavery) led a “Day of Pardon” service at St. Peter’s in Rome. He asked for forgiveness for “the infidelities to the Gospel” committed in the past by “some of our brethren”— against Jews and native peoples in places colonized by Catholic countries, for example—although not by the Church itself. He saw the service as an act of purification that would enable the Church to go forward in the new millennium, and he undertook it over the misgivings of his chief theological adviser, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger—the future Benedict XVI—who nevertheless insured that the script would not concede error on the part of the Church itself, only “her sons and daughters.” Vague language aside, the request for pardon was significant: it opened up a path that Pope Francis has continued to follow, both formally and informally, setting a precedent that his supporters hope is so clear that future Popes will not be able to depart from it.

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