Canadian Catholic and indigenous leaders to meet with Pope Benedict

Chief Phil Fontaine / Archbishop V. James Weisgerber
Chief Phil Fontaine / Archbishop V. James Weisgerber

.- On April 29 Pope Benedict XVI will meet with a delegation of aboriginal representatives from Canada along with representatives of Canadian Catholic dioceses and religious communities. A leading Canadian archbishop expressed hope the meeting would show a “renewed partnership and a new beginning” between the Catholic and indigenous communities.

Among the delegation will be Chief Phil Fontaine, the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Archbishop V. James Weisgerber, President of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) will also be part of the meeting.

“During the meeting the Pope will express concern for aboriginal peoples in Canada who continue to suffer from the impact of the former Indian Residential Schools, the majority of which were managed by a number of Catholic dioceses and religious orders,” a press release form the CCCB said.

At a Wednesday press conference at the Ottawa offices of the Assembly of First Nations, in the presence of Chief Fontaine, Archbishop Weisgerber said that the meeting with Pope Benedict would serve as a witness to the “mutual determination” of the Catholic Church of Canada and the First Nations for a renewed partnership and a new beginning.

Saying there has been a “close association” between the indigenous people of Canada and the Catholic Church since the first European settlements five centuries ago, Archbishop Weisgerber said most of that history has been “a wonderful sharing of faith and witness” but that it also contained “moments of sorrow.”

He described the Indian Residential Schools as among the “greatest disappointment” of that history.

“Certainly, there were many examples of great dedication in the efforts at the time to provide a good education for indigenous children; this generosity and goodwill involved school staff, including men and women religious from Catholic missionary orders; elders and parents, and the children themselves.

“At the same time, there were also terrible challenges, including important cultural differences, insufficient government funding, and human failings, and worst of all instances of exploitation and cruelty. From today’s perspective, we are all very conscious of the tragic limitations of the Residential Schools, especially from the perspectives of family life, community values, and cultural heritage.”

He said that indigenous Canadian peoples continue to be “marginalized and impoverished” and called for “sustained efforts” to work with indigenous people “to assure them of respect, acceptance and equality.”

The archbishop noted that National Chief Fontaine invited the Catholic bishops to join with aboriginal peoples in a new partnership. His invitation resulted in the mobilization of Catholic dioceses, religious orders, Church organizations and other Catholic agencies.

Turning to the upcoming meeting with Pope Benedict, Archbishop Weisgerber said:

“The Pope is a bridge builder. That is the meaning of the word ‘Pontiff.’ For that reason, he has invited us to visit him in Rome, in a gesture of reconciliation and healing. By accepting this invitation, as representatives of the Catholic Church in Canada and of the First Nations we can show and celebrate our mutual determination for a renewed partnership and a new beginning.”

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