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ROME – After Pope Francis voiced his intention earlier this year to travel to Canada as part of the nation’s reconciliation process with indigenous communities, one of the country’s top prelates has said the papal visit could come as early as next year.

Currently in Rome for meetings between the leadership of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) and Vatican officials, Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme and Mont-Laurier and president of the CCCB, told Crux that “it’s possible” the pope could visit Canada in 2022.

The trip, he said, would likely be organized shortly after the visit of a delegation of Canadian indigenous to Rome, which has been in the works for the past two years and which was planned for this month, but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic and the emergence of the new Omicron variant.

According to Poisson, the decision to postpone was made largely by survivors of the residential schools themselves, as most are in their eighties and hesitant to travel with a rise in COVID cases related to the Omicron variant. There is also concern that since the visit was close to Christmas, if someone got infected and was forced to quarantine upon their return, they would miss spending the holiday with family.

Poisson and the vice president, secretary general and adjunct secretary general of the CCCB met with Pope Francis Dec. 9 for a discussion that focused in part on other local issues in Canada, but was largely dedicated to hashing out plans for when the visit of the delegation could be rescheduled and when a papal visit could take place.

According to Poisson, the Canadian bishops are currently in discussions with the Prefecture of the Papal Household, which manages the pope’s agenda, to reschedule the visit of the delegations, which they hope will happen in “spring 2022.”

“It is essential to have this delegation come before, because it’s an experience for the delegates but also for the pope, to be really in contact with them and them with him to understand more what the feeling is, the heritage, and what is necessary to do to be together on the same road of reconciliation,” Poisson said.

If the delegation’s visit is rescheduled for the springtime, he said, “perhaps in the summer, or in the fall, that would be possible to do this visit” of the pope.

Since Pope Francis prefers to make shorter international trips, lasting just a few days, rather than a lengthy drawn-out visit, “it’s easier to prepare,” Poisson said, “but we must do this preparation.”

“We hope this visit will not be too far from the delegation, because we want to add to this whole process” of healing and reconciliation, he said.

Emotions in Canada have been running high since this summer, when the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops at the end of May, prompting searches at other schools that unearthed hundreds more bodies.

Amid the public outrage that followed, there was pressure for both the Canadian bishops and the pope to make a formal apology. While individual religious communities who were historically responsible for residential schools have made apologies over the years, there has been no apology on an institutional level.

Around the same time, it was announced that a joint delegation of Canadian bishops and members of Canada’s First Nations, Métis, and Inuit indigenous communities would travel to Rome to meet with the pope. The visit of the delegation had already been in the works for two years but was put on hold with the outbreak of COVID-19.

While the Canadian bishops themselves did eventually issue a collective apology over the summer, Pope Francis has not. At the conclusion of its work in 2015, Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in one of its action points asked for the pope to make an apology on Canadian soil.

In October, the Vatican announced Pope Francis’s intention to visit Canada as part of the healing process with indigenous peoples, but there was no mention of dates or whether an apology would happen.

It was expected that the issue of the papal apology would be discussed during the visit of the delegation this month, before the visit was postponed.

According to Poisson, the issue of a papal apology came up in Thursday’s meeting with the pope, and that as far as whether it will happen, “we assume yes, but the mode and what is the best,” need to be determined.

“We don’t want to leave it just at words,” he said, but the bishops especially want to back those words up with actions and put the apology “into the context that we are doing some projects with them for development and valorization of their culture, also in the Church.”

The problem of colonization and forced assimilation is not limited to Canada, but is part of history throughout the Americas, Poisson said, saying the Catholic Church in Canada strives to be an example “for this reconciliation and this forgiveness.”

“In the communities, in the parishes, with the indigenous, we have been ever-present with our priests, our pastoral agents. For us and for them, we are friends,” he said, insisting that the revelations of the summer did not change this.

“Perhaps it’s not the same impression we have with the media and national associations, but in the communities, we are present,” he said, noting that individual dioceses for years have been organizing joint listening circles and conferences, and at the pastoral level, there are numerous initiatives, including for the distribution of the sacraments.

Referring to plans for the papal visit and the delegation to Rome, Poisson said “it’s a very important moment in the life of the Church in Canada, not just for the indigenous, but also for all Catholics in Canada.”

Canada’s Catholics, he said, “are indigenous and non-indigenous, and I think this will be a source of light and joy to be together, working together for a better world.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen