Pope Francis to meet Canadian Indigenous leaders and Catholic bishops next week

Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square on October 12, 2016. Pope Francis at the general audience in St. Peter’s Square on October 12, 2016. | Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Pope Francis will meet with a delegation of Canadian Indigenous people and Catholic bishops at the Vatican from March 28 to April 1, the Vatican confirmed on Wednesday.

On March 28-31, the pope will meet with the Indigenous groups individually, before a final audience on April 1 in the Vatican’s Clementine Hall. Members of the Canadian bishops’ conference will also take part.

The delegation’s week-long visit will also include attendance at the pope’s Sunday Angelus and Wednesday general audience, as well as a private tour of the Vatican Museums.

The visit was initially scheduled to take place in December 2021, but was postponed due to an uptick in coronavirus cases. The new dates were announced on Feb. 1 by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

The delegation to Rome will include “Indigenous Elders, knowledge keepers, residential school survivors, and youth,” the Feb. 1 statement said.

Pope Francis’ meeting with Indigenous peoples has been in planning since June 2021, following the reported discovery of unmarked gravesites at the site of former residential schools in Canada.

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, which were established by the federal government and run by Catholics and members of Protestant ecclesial communities, to force assimilation and strip them of familial and cultural ties.

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

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, an estimated 4,100 to 6,000 students died while they were enrolled at the schools. The majority of the students died of diseases, including influenza and tuberculosis.

When members of the delegation arrive in the Vatican, they intend to ask Pope Francis for an apology for the Church’s role in the residential school system, as well as the release of all records that relate to the residential schools, and the return of any Indigenous items from Canada that the Vatican may possess in its archives.

In October 2021, Pope Francis said that he would be open to the idea of a papal visit to Canada. Should the visit happen, it would be the first time a pope has visited Canada since 2002, when St. John Paul II visited for World Youth Day.

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