Pope Francis ends ‘penitential pilgrimage’ to Canada with message of healing, reconciliation and hope

Marco Carvalho

Hundreds of people from Quebec City lined the streets last Wednesday, hoping to get a glimpse of Pope Francis, as the Holy Father began the second leg of his “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada. On his first day of events in francophone Quebec’s capital city, the pontiff met with the country’s political leaders, a largely diplomatic pause from the main purpose of his six-day visit.

Francis embarked last weekend on an apology tour of Canada, seeking forgiveness for the Catholic Church’s role in a network of long-closed residential schools that carried out government-defined policies aimed at assimilating natives by trying to erase their languages and cultures.

More than 150,000 indigenous children were forcibly separated from their families and brought to residential schools, where they were starved or beaten for speaking their native languages. The schools, which operated between 1870 and 1996, were responsible for what Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide.”

Wheelchair-bound, the Holy Father was greeted on the runway at Jean Lesage International Airport by indigenous representatives and political leaders. The Pope then met at the Citadelle – a fortress on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River – with Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau. The Citadelle is also one of the official residences of Governor General of Canada Mary Simon, Queen Elizabeth’s representative in Canada.

The pontiff first met with Simon, the first indigenous person to serve as governor general. Later on, Justin Trudeau, who has made reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples one of his top political priorities, spoke privately with Pope Francis.

The Citadelle is the largest fortress built by the British in North America and overlooks a park called Plains of Abraham, where the Supreme Pontiff later addressed Trudeau, Simon and some of the country’s top dignitaries. The Pope spoke of “the radical injustice” of the unequal distribution of wealth in one of the world’s richest countries. “It is scandalous that the well-being generated by economic development does not benefit all the sectors of society,” Pope Francis  told Trudeau and Simon, noting that a lot of homeless and needy people had to turn to churches and food banks to ensure their survival.

“And it is actually very sad that it is precisely among native peoples that we often find many signs of poverty, along with other negative indicators such as a low percentage of schooling or greater difficulties in accessing the health system or owning a home,” Francis added.

Indigenous people, who make up about five percent of Canada’s population, show higher levels of poverty and a lower life expectancy than other Canadians. Natives, who are more often victims of violent crime, are more likely to suffer from addiction and to be incarcerated.

Forgiveness is the way forward

In their addresses to the Supreme Pontiff, Trudeau and Simon, alike, poignantly and incisively evoked the tragedies that unfolded in dozens of residential schools all over the country, the last of which closed almost two decades before Francis became pope. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told the head of the Catholic Church, “As a father, I cannot imagine that my children could be taken away from me. When my children need to cry, I can comfort them. When they are happy, I can share that feeling of joy with them,” Trudeau told the head of the Catholic Church. “But in residential schools, children were alone and isolated, stripped of their language, their culture and their identity.”

“With this visit, His Holiness is signaling to the world that both you and the Catholic Church are available to join us on this path of reconciliation, healing, hope and renewal,” Simon said. “But these people, these survivors, they defy any attempt at definition. They are parents who stood up for their children when no one else would. They are advocates who fought – and still fight – for their languages ​​and cultures so that they can thrive for generations to come,” the representative of Queen Elizabeth II added.

Francis told the political leaders of Canada that the Church is ready to “admit its shortcomings” and available to work with the civil authorities of Canada “to promote the legitimate rights of the native populations and to foster processes of healing and reconciliation” between indigenous and non-indigenous Canadians.

The Pope’s pilgrimage of healing, reconciliation and hope was also an opportunity to come to terms with a nation where the waning Church is struggling to find its place in society. Mrs. Christine Rozario, a member of the Macanese community in Vancouver, asserted that making peace with the past is  the only way to move forward. “Pope Francis’ visit was only prompted by the mistakes made with the indigenous people. If not for that, would he even be visiting Canada? The way he acts will probably affect how the world sees Canadian citizens. However, the world need to address the strength of their faith in God, especially in times like this,” said Mrs. Rozario. She continued, telling O Clarim, “It’s the right thing to do, to make peace. Christ preached peace and forgiveness. Again, the people who perpetrated this evil are answerable to God. Not for man to judge. Judge not, lest ye be judged.”

On Monday, the Pope traveled to the small town of Maskwacis where two former residential schools were located. There, he issued a historic apology in which he called the role the Church played in the forced cultural assimilation of native populations as a “deplorable evil” and “a disastrous mistake.”

On Tuesday, Francis reiterated that the Catholic Church must institutionally accept blame for the damage done to indigenous Canadians in dozens of schools run by religious institutions in different parts of Canada.

After meeting Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, the Supreme Pontiff visited the Sanctuary of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, the oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in North America, and met with the archbishop of Quebec, Gérald Cyprien Lacroix, in a meeting that took place in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Quebec.

Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Friday, and on his way back to Rome, the papal entourage stopped for a few hours in Iqaluit, in the Canadian Arctic, where the head of the Catholic Church addressed the threat that climate change poses to the local indigenous communities.