Pope Francis will arrive in Edmonton on Sunday as a pastor, a pilgrim, a penitent and, inescapably, as a player in political controversy.
The visit will unfold successfully in those first three capacities. On the last, it remains to be seen if the Pope’s presence in Canada changes the prevailing priorities of Canada’s Indigenous politicians.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called in 2015 for Pope Francis to come to Canada to repeat and extend the residential schools apology made by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 at the Vatican. The TRC demand — remarkably and peremptorily, that he appear “within a year” — treated a papal visit as if it were Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jetting off to Tofino to go surfing.
It’s not that. It remains a highly unusual thing. Pope Francis has not visited Germany, India, Australia or even his native Argentina. That the ailing pope, using a wheelchair and restraining his public appearances to less than an hour, is making the long trek, including to Iqaluit, will be deeply appreciated by the Indigenous people he will meet. That Pope Francis cancelled trips to Lebanon and to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in the past two months, but is still coming to Canada, manifests how seriously he takes his duties as universal pastor of the Catholic Church and, in particular, his role as pastor to Canada’s Indigenous Catholics.
Pope Francis will arrive … as a player in political controversy
Despite pressures to make the papal visit only about residential schools, the Holy Father chose to come as a pilgrim for the liturgical feast day (July 26) of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. He will join the annual pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne near Edmonton, the largest annual religious event for Indigenous Canadians.
The encounter of the Catholic Church with Indigenous peoples predates Confederation and residential schools by two centuries. Indeed, when the Holy Father visits Quebec City, he will pray at the tomb of St. François de Laval, the first bishop of Canada who fought mightily with the French colonial authorities in order to defend the dignity and well-being of the Indigenous peoples, particularly in regard to the alcohol trade.
It is often forgotten that for the Pope, leading worship and praying together is the point of a papal visit, not an ancillary activity. The entire visit is built around the Pope as a pilgrim amongst pilgrims, at Lac Ste. Anne. For secular progressives for whom Indigenous “spirituality” is a fashionable decoration to be added to public meetings, the importance of Indigenous Christians praying with Pope Francis at their most sacred pilgrimage site will be entirely overlooked.
People who rarely, if ever, pray, find it nearly impossible to understand why people would make arduous journeys in order to lift their hearts to God in a holy place. But pilgrims have been doing that since the dawn of time in every culture. The pilgrims at Lac Ste. Anne — and at the famous shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré near Quebec City — will welcome Pope Francis as a fellow pilgrim, a fellow seeker of the sacred coming to honour their own Christian and Indigenous traditions.
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Monday’s apology at Maskwacis, the site of a former residential school (torn down some time ago) will get the most attention. Last Sunday, Pope Francis spoke of his visit to Canada as “penitential,” an opportunity to repent of past wrongs and ask forgiveness of God and Indigenous Canadians. The Maskwacis visit will be deeply moving and healing, as Pope Francis will be hosted by the former chief of that territory, Willie Littlechild, who still lives there. An elder held in enormous esteem, Chief Littlechild, former MP and TRC commissioner, has earned utmost credibility on the residential schools question.
The content of the apology will be anticlimactic, as Pope Francis already offered a fulsome apology to Indigenous peoples in Rome last April and analogously in Bolivia even before the TRC reported. But the setting will be significant.
Chief Littlechild is of a generation for whom reconciliation was a matter of personal and communal healing, not political posturing. A new generation of Indigenous politicians appears to see matters differently.
RoseAnne Archibald, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), refused to go to Rome in March with Littlechild and the others. How will she receive this latest Catholic apology?
How will Archibald receive this latest Catholic apology?
Perhaps she gave us a preview last month when she released a statement on how she pressed the Prince of Wales about the necessity of the Queen apologizing both as sovereign and the head of the Church of England. It was an odd way to mark the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations.
No matter that the prime minister of Canada has apologized, no matter that the Primate of the Anglican Church in Canada has apologized, no matter that the Archbishop of Canterbury has apologized; no matter that the Crown does not “intercede” with her government but takes advice from it — in demanding something that is both constitutionally inappropriate and superfluous, the national chief seems more interested in politics than reconciliation.
Politicians — the prime minister and Indigenous leaders — will surely attempt to score political points in the week ahead. But for the Pope — and for the people he is coming such a long distance to meet — it is the prayer, the penitence and the pilgrimage which remain primary.