Canada's bishops hope papal visit will aid 'reconciliation and healing'

Pope Francis gives his Angelus address on Oct. 24, 2021 Pope Francis gives an Angelus address, Oct. 24, 2021. | Vatican Media

Catholic, secular, and tribal leaders throughout Canada reacted with mixed emotions to the news that Pope Francis would likely be making a papal visit to Canada in the future.

“The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada, also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples,” said a statement from the Vatican Oct. 27. “His Holiness has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.”

A press release from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops following the announcement said the bishops were “grateful” to hear that their invitation had been accepted. 

“The Bishops of Canada have been engaged in meaningful discussions with Indigenous Peoples, especially those affected by Residential Schools who have shared stories about the suffering and challenges that they continue to experience,” said CCCB President Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme and Mont-Laurier. 

“We pray that Pope Francis’ visit to Canada will be a significant milestone in the journey toward reconciliation and healing.”

The news of the accepted invitation comes about six weeks before a group of Indigenous Canadians will be meeting with Pope Francis in the Vatican. The delegation will be in Rome from Dec. 17-20 2021. 

In addition to the apology, the Indigenous leaders plan to ask Pope Francis for the release of all records that relate to the residential schools, and for the return of any Indigenous items from Canada that the Vatican may possess in its archives.

“We will invite the delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers, and youth who will meet with Pope Francis to open their hearts to the Holy Father and share both their suffering as well as their hopes and desires for his eventual visit to Canada,” added Poisson.

The idea of a pastoral visit to Canada has been discussed for months, and the CCCB recently made a pledge to “work with the Holy See and Indigenous partners on the possibility of a pastoral visit to Canada by the Pope.” 

“Following this pledge and informed by three years of ongoing dialogue between the Canadian Bishops, the Holy See, and Indigenous Peoples, the President and former-President of the CCCB met in Rome with the Secretary of State of the Holy See to discuss next steps on the reconciliation journey earlier this month and in preparation for the delegation,” said the bishops.

The last papal visit to Canada was in 2002. 

The newly-appointed Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller expressed hope Wednesday that the potential visit would bring healing to a hurting people. 

Miller, who described himself as “not a Catholic,” said that “in the grand scheme of what we call reconciliation, I think, for Indigenous peoples, that full recognition of harm caused is something that is long waited for.”

In 2017, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, requested that Pope Francis issue an apology for the Church’s role in the country’s residential school system. The pope declined to give an apology, but has repeatedly expressed “sorrow” at the various atrocities which occurred at the Church-administered schools. 

Canada’s residential school system operated from the 1870s until 1996. First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children were separated from their families and sent to the schools, established by the federal government and run by Catholics and members of Protestant denominations, to force assimilation and strip them of familial and cultural ties.

The Catholic Church, or Catholic religious orders, ran more than two-thirds of these schools.

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of neglect or abuse in the schools. Many unmarked graves located on or near the locations of the former schools were discovered over the summer. 

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Individual bishops, religious orders, as well as the CCCB, have issued apologies for the role the Church played in operating the schools. The Canadian government, as well as other Christian churches, have similarly apologized.

For Chief RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, an apology from Pope Francis is just the beginning of what she would like to see happen. 

“I’ll welcome Pope Francis when he arrives on Turtle Island to issue a long overdue apology to survivors and intergenerational trauma survivors,” she said. “Meegwetch to the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops for acting on our request that the Truth and Reconciliation Call to Action #58 is actioned upon and eventually completed.” 

“Meegwetch'' means “thank you” in Algonquin. In 2015, the commission issued several “call to action”; #58 was an apology from the pope. 

“I reiterate that the Catholic church [sic] must be accountable and acknowledge their responsibility for the great harm caused by their direct role in the institutions of assimilation and genocide that they ran,” she said. Archibald called for further reparations, including “returning diocese land properties back to First Nations,” and additional investment into healing initiatives. 

Archibald requested that Pope Francis “formally revoke ‘Inter Caetera’ 1493 Doctrine of Discovery,” and “replace it with a Papal Bull that decrees Indigenous Peoples and cultures are valuable, worthy, and must be treated with dignity and respect.” 

Inter Caetera was a papal bull from 1493 granting control of what is now parts of North and South America to Portuguese and Spanish monarchs, as well as control of lands currently occupied by non-Christians.

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