Pope Francis meets with Indigenous people in Canada to focus on seniors and the environment


VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis will travel to Canada on Sunday (July 24) for what he described as a “penitential pilgrimage” to atone for the role of the Catholic Church in the persecution of indigenous communities and its evil treatment and alienation of Aboriginal children in residential schools.

But Francis’ six-day apostolic visit is not just about bringing the pope’s presence and apologies to indigenous peoples. It will highlight the contribution of indigenous culture to the Catholic faith, honoring its concern for the environment and the elderly, two subjects dear to the pontiff.

The pope’s trip could also lay the groundwork for a future Vatican statement on the Doctrine of Discovery, a justification for colonizing the Western Hemisphere spelled out in papal bulls.

Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni told reporters on Wednesday (July 20th) that “a reflection is underway on the doctrine of discovery” in the Vatican, adding that there “could be a development on this theme” after the papal trip.

In April, a delegation of Canadian Aboriginals came to the Vatican. During their visit, Francis spoke of reconciliation “as part of a journey that can foster the rediscovery and revitalization of your culture, while helping the Church grow in love, respect and specific attention to your authentic traditions”.

Pope John Paul II brought much the same message when he visited Canada in 1984. “Your encounter with the Gospel has not only enriched you, but has enriched the Church,” John Paul said. Paul to representatives of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit, adding that their traditions “allow new expressions of the message of salvation and help us to better understand how Jesus is savior and his Catholic, that is to say the universal salvation”.

Francis will visit Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, Alberta, where he will have his first meeting on July 25 with Elders from Indigenous communities in the area. He will then walk to a cemetery in silent prayer, accompanied by the sound of traditional drums, and deliver his first speech.

That afternoon, the pope is expected at Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton to say his first mass in the country for native and non-native attendees. Speaking in Spanish, he will bless a new statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, an Indigenous woman born in the United States in the mid-1600s who held on to her Catholic faith in the face of incredible adversity until her death in Canada. Also known as the “Lily of the Mohawks”, she was beatified by Jean-Paul in 1980 and consecrated by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.

On July 26, after a mass at Commonwealth Stadium, the largest outdoor venue in Canada, Francis will have the opportunity to deliver his message on senior care and the environment in Lac Ste. Anne, a Catholic shrine an hour west of Edmonton.

Pope Francis arrives to attend his weekly general audience in the Vatican’s Paul VI Hall, Dec. 15, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The lake is called “the lake of God” by some indigenous peoples, who have considered it a holy and healing place for generations. The Pope will bless its waters by making the sign of the cross according to the cardinal points according to indigenous tradition.

The lake has seen declining water levels in recent years and scientists are concerned about the loss of animal species due to decades of human activity. On Thursday (July 21), Francis called on all nations to protect threatened ecosystems and will likely repeat his call in Canada.

Lac Ste. Anne will also give the Pope the opportunity to discuss the place of the elderly in society, as his visit will coincide with the feast of Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus and a beloved figure among native Catholics. The 85-year-old pontiff defended the elderly, noting that many older people are shunned in modern societies. He regularly appeals to the need for intergenerational dialogue.

On July 27, the pope will travel to Quebec, where he will meet local authorities and members of the Canadian diplomatic corps. It was Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2021 speech calling on the Pope to come to Canada to apologize for the “cultural genocide” of Indigenous peoples that prompted the Pope’s trip, although the Canadian Commission on Truth and Reconciliation also urged the Pope to visit in 2015.

The treatment of Native American people came to the fore when the remains of thousands of unnamed individuals were recently found on the properties of residential schools, some of them Catholic, in Canada and the United States. These schools played a crucial role in separating young Aboriginal people from their families and stripping them of their culture.

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On July 28, François will visit the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, the oldest place of pilgrimage in Canada, where Jean-Paul gave his speech to the assembled Aboriginal representatives more than 30 years ago. François will then visit Notre-Dame de Québec Cathedral and meet the Archbishop and local religious.

Francis’ last day in Canada, July 29, will see him travel to the remote northern town of Iqualit, a former Inuit fishing ground of around 8,000 people in the territory of Nunavut. Here, the pope will hold a private meeting with former students of Canadian residential schools, who will talk about their experiences. Francis will return to Rome the next day.

Bruni said the pope’s visit, while focused on Canada, will likely resonate with other Indigenous peoples south of the Canadian border. “Clearly, the Pope’s actions and words have value for all Indigenous peoples,” he said, “including in other parts of Canada and places where similar sentiments might have produce”.

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