Pope Francis blesses the water, pilgrims at Lac Ste. Anne in Canada

Pope Francis blesses the crowds at Ste. Anne Shrine at Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, Canada Pope Francis blesses the crowds at Ste. Anne Shrine at Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, Canada. | Vatican Media

Pope Francis concluded his second full day in Canada with a visit to Lac Ste. Anne, the site of one of Canada’s most famous Catholic pilgrimages and a place of spiritual significance for the nation’s indigenous people. 

The pope celebrated a Liturgy of the Word at the Shrine of Ste. Anne, with a crowd of mostly indigenous people in attendance, estimated at around 10,000.

The large, shallow, and muddy lake — about an hour’s drive from Edmonton — has been revered as a place of spiritual significance, and of healing, for centuries. Known as Wakamne, “Lake of God,” by the Nakota Sioux and “Lake of the Spirit” by the Cree people, it received the name “Lac Ste. Anne” from Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, the first priest to establish a permanent Catholic mission in Alberta, in 1842. 

Before the liturgy, making the Sign of the Cross towards the four cardinal points — according to indigenous custom — the pope blessed a bowl of the lake’s water, which was brought up to a small wooden structure, shaped like a teepee, overlooking the lake. The pope, after spending a moment in prayer sitting at the water's edge in his wheelchair, later sprinkled the crowds with the blessed water. 

Pope Francis sits at the edge of Lac Ste. Anne, in prayer. Vatican Media
Pope Francis sits at the edge of Lac Ste. Anne, in prayer. Vatican Media

In his homily during the Liturgy of the Word, the pope noted that much of Jesus’ ministry took place by a lake — the Sea of Galilee — a place where “various peoples who then, as today, flocked from different places; in a natural theater such as this, [Jesus] preached to everyone.”

“God chose that richly diverse context to announce to the world something revolutionary: ‘Turn the other cheek, love your enemies, live as brothers and sisters so as to be children of God, the Father who makes his sun shine on both good and bad and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Matthew 5:38-48). This lake, with all its diversity, thus became the site of an unprecedented proclamation of fraternity; not a revolution bringing death and injury in its wake, but a revolution of love.”

Lac Ste. Anne, in 2022, provides a similar context. 

“Here, on the shores of this lake, the sound of drums, spanning the centuries and uniting different peoples, brings us back to that time. It reminds us that fraternity is genuine if it unites those who are far apart, that the message of unity that heaven sends down to earth does not fear differences, but invites us to fellowship, in order to start afresh together, because we are all pilgrims on a journey.”

Indigenous drummers welcome Pope Francis to Lac Ste. Anne. Vatican Media
Indigenous drummers welcome Pope Francis to Lac Ste. Anne. Vatican Media

Reiterating his praise and recognition of grandparents from his homily at Mass earlier that day, the pope spoke about the importance of the faith being passed on through the loving witness of grandparents.  

“Faith rarely comes from reading a book alone in a corner; instead, it spreads within families, transmitted in the language of mothers, in the sweetly lyrical accents of grandmothers. It warms my heart to see so many grandparents and great-grandparents here. I thank you and would like to say to all those families with elderly people at home: you possess a treasure! Guard this source of life within your homes: take care of it, as a precious legacy to be loved and cherished,” he said. 

The first church at Lac Ste. Anne was built in 1844, and the first Catholic pilgrimage was held in 1889, on the Feast of Sts. Joachim and Anne. A pilgrimage, under the care of the Oblates of Mary, has taken place to the site every year since. According to the Vatican, the pilgrimage has become one of the most important spiritual meetings for pilgrims in North America, and is particularly dear to members of the First Nations, who continue to take part in it annually. The church, which was completely destroyed by fire in 1928, was rebuilt in 2009. 

Pope Francis speaks in the Shrine of Ste. Anne on July 26, 2022. Vatican Media
Pope Francis speaks in the Shrine of Ste. Anne on July 26, 2022. Vatican Media

Commenting on the lake’s reputation for its healing waters, the pope called on Christ’s healing power. “This evening, let us picture ourselves around the lake with Jesus, as he draws near, bends down and with patience, compassion and tenderness, heals many who are sick in body or spirit: the possessed, the paralyzed, the blind and lepers, but also the broken-hearted and discouraged, the lost and hurting. Jesus came then, and he still comes now, to care for us, and to console and heal our lonely and wearied human family.”

“The crowds at the Sea of Galilee who thronged around Jesus were made up for the most part of ordinary, simple people, who brought to him their own needs and hurts. If we want to care for and heal the life of our communities, we need to start with the poor and most marginalized. Too often, we allow ourselves to be guided by the interests of a few who are comfortable. We need to look more to the peripheries and listen to the cry of the least of our brothers and sisters.”

A major theme of the pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” has been reconciliation. On Monday, Pope Francis publicly apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in running much of Canada’s government-sponsored residential school system, which worked to stamp out aspects of native culture and language, and in which many former students have alleged abuse and mistreatment. 

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“Part of the painful legacy we are now confronting stems from the fact that indigenous grandmothers were prevented from passing on the faith in their own language and culture,” he said Tuesday. 

“That loss was certainly tragic, but your presence here is a testimony of resilience and a fresh start, of pilgrimage towards healing, of a heart open to God who heals the life of communities. All of us, as Church, now need healing: healing from the temptation of closing in on ourselves, of defending the institution rather than seeking the truth, of preferring worldly power to serving the Gospel.”

Pope Francis encouraged those in attendance to reach out with love to others, and to accompany them in their need, so that ​​“streams of living water might flow” from their hearts. 

“Dear indigenous brothers and sisters, I have come here as a pilgrim also to say to you how precious you are to me and to the Church,” he concluded his speech. 

“I want the Church to be intertwined with you, as tightly woven as the threads of the colored bands that many of you wear. May the Lord help us to move forward in the healing process, towards an ever more healthy and renewed future. I believe that this is also the wish of your grandmothers and your grandfathers. May the grandparents of Jesus, Saints Joachim and Anne, bless us on our journey.”

On Wednesday, Pope Francis will depart Edmonton and fly to Quebec City, the capital of Quebec. He is set to be welcomed by the Governor General of Canada, and will meet with Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister. Later he will meet with civil authorities, representatives of indigenous peoples, and members of the diplomatic corps.

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