Pope’s ‘Penitential Pilgrimage’ to Canada Marks Overhaul of Catholic Church’s Legacy on First Nations Peoples


VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ trip to Canada to apologize for the horrors of Church-run residential schools marks a radical overhaul of the Catholic Church’s missionary heritage, spurred on by the first pope of the Americas and the discovery of hundreds of probable graves on school sites.

Francis said his week-long visit, which begins on Sunday, is a “penitential pilgrimage” to seek forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “harm” done to Indigenous peoples by Catholic missionaries. This follows his April 1 apology to the Vatican for generations of trauma suffered by Indigenous peoples as a result of a church-imposed policy aimed at eliminating their culture and assimilating them into Canadian Christian society.

Francis’ tone of personal repentance signaled a notable shift for the papacy, which has long recognized abuses in residential schools and firmly affirmed the rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples. But past popes have also praised the sacrifice and holiness of European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas — something Francis also did but shouldn’t emphasize on this trip.

READ MORE: Pope apologizes to First Nations people for widespread residential school abuse

Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit who is a top papal adviser, recalled that early in his papacy, Francis asserted that no culture can claim a hold on Christianity and that the church cannot not demand that people from other continents imitate the European way. to express faith.

“Had this belief been accepted by all involved in the centuries since the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, much suffering would have been avoided, great developments would have occurred, and the Americas would be better off overall,” he said. he told the Associated Press. in an email.

The journey will not be easy for Francis, 85, or for residential school survivors and their families. Francis can no longer walk unaided and will use a wheelchair and cane due to ligament pain in his knee. Trauma experts are deployed to all events to provide mental health assistance to school survivors, given the likelihood of triggering memories.

“It’s an understatement to say there are mixed emotions,” said Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe, one of the First Nations that is part of Maskwacis territory where Francis will issue his first general apology on Monday. near the site of a former boarding school.

The Canadian government has admitted physical and sexual abuse was endemic in state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in the goal of isolating them from the influence of their native homes, languages ​​and cultures.

The legacy of this abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.

“For survivors from coast to coast, this is an opportunity — the first and perhaps the last — to perhaps find a solution for themselves and their families,” said Chief Randy Ermineskin. of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.

“It will be a difficult but necessary process,” he said.

Workers prepare signs at the former Ermineskin residential school site ahead of Pope Francis’ visit to Maskwacis, Alberta, Canada, July 22, 2022. Photo by Amber Bracken/Reuters

Unlike most papal trips, diplomatic protocols take precedence over personal encounters with First Nations, Métis and Inuit survivors. Francis does not officially meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until halfway through, in Quebec City, although Trudeau will greet him on the tarmac when he arrives on Sunday.

Francis also ends the trip in unusual style, stopping in Iqaluit, Nunavut – the furthest north he has ever traveled – to apologize to the Inuit community before flying to Rome.

As recently as 2018, Francis refused to personally apologize for residential school abuses, even after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada in 2015 documented institutional blame and specifically recommended a papal apology on Canadian soil.

Trudeau visited the Vatican in 2017 to ask Francis to apologize, but the pontiff felt “he could not respond personally” to the appeal, the Canadian bishops said at the time.

What changed? The Americas’ first pope, who has long championed the rights of indigenous peoples, previously apologized in Bolivia in 2015 for colonial-era crimes against indigenous peoples.

In 2019, Francis – a Jesuit from Argentina – organized a major Vatican conference on the Amazon highlighting that the injustices suffered by indigenous peoples during colonial times continued, with their lands and resources being exploited by commercial interests.

Then, in 2021, the remains of around 200 children were found at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indian residential school, in Kamloops, British Columbia. More likely graves followed outside other former boarding schools.

LOOK: Indigenous survivor describes her ‘haunting experience’ of residential school abuse

“It wasn’t until our children began to be found in mass graves, attracting international attention, that light was shed on this painful time in our history,” said Bull, the chief of the Louis tribe. Bull.

After the discovery, Francis finally agreed to meet with Indigenous delegations last spring and promised to come to their lands to apologize in person.

“Obviously there are wounds that have remained open that require a response,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said when asked about the evolution of the papal response.

One such wound relates to papal influences in the Doctrine of Discovery, the 19th-century international legal concept that is often understood to legitimize European colonial seizure of lands and resources from Indigenous peoples.

For decades, Indigenous peoples have petitioned the Holy See to formally rescind 15th-century papal bulls or decrees that gave European kingdoms the religious backing to claim the lands their explorers had “discovered” in an effort to spread the Christian faith.

Church officials have long rejected these concepts, insisted that the decrees were simply intended to ensure that European expansion would be peaceful, and said they had been overtaken by later church teachings firmly affirming the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.

But the case is still raw for Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Oneida Nation’s wolf clan, who was the last person to address the pope when the First Nations delegation met with him on March 31.

Carrying a cradle on her back to represent the children whose lives were lost in residential schools, she told him that the Doctrine of Discovery had “led to the continued taking of our babies.”

“It deprived us of our dignity, our freedom and led to the exploitation of our mother earth,” she said. She pleaded with Francis to “liberate the world from its place of bondage” caused by the decrees.

Asked about the appeals, Bruni said there was an articulate “reflection” going on in the Holy See, but he didn’t think anything would be announced on this trip.


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