ROME – This week Pope Francis is holding private meetings with Indigenous delegations from Canada to further efforts at reconciliation after a series of historical scandals from church-run residential schools erupted last summer.

The visit of the delegations will also serve to lay the groundwork for a potential papal visit to Canada, which the Canadian bishops expect will take place within the year as a continuance of this week’s conversations.

Speaking to Crux, Canadian Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme, Québec, said he believes the decision to hold these meetings “will be of benefit for all of society in Canada.” He is in Rome as part of the formal delegation.

Poisson, who is also president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he was born in Canada and has spent his entire 60 years of life there, but until recently, was unfamiliar with the culture of the various Indigenous communities present in the country.

“We don’t live together. We are in the same country, but not together,” he said.

Poisson voiced hope that the papal meetings and the publicity surrounding Catholic-Indigenous relations will help government officials in Canada “to be able to understand that if you want to build a better society, a better community together with all the people living in Canada, it’s important to do it together with the respect of this cultural history.”

Poisson is one of five Canadian bishops who came to Rome alongside three different Canadian Indigenous organizations as part of the formal delegations that will meet with Pope Francis.

Others include Bishop William T. McGrattan of Calgary and vice president of the CCCB; Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton; Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina; and Archbishop Richard Gagnon of Winnipeg.

The meetings will take place March 28 – April 1 with delegations from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami communities. Delegates from these groups include Elders, “knowledge keepers,” residential school survivors, and young people from across Canada.

There are around 30 Indigenous who form part of the official delegations that will meet the pope individually; in addition, the communities invited around 60-65 others to a joint audience.

Meetings with the pope were scheduled to begin Monday and will be interspersed with other activities throughout the week. These activities include various tours and an optional day trip to Assisi.

Pope Francis was scheduled to hold individual meetings with the Métis and Inuit delegates Monday morning, and he will meet with the Assembly of First Nations Thursday, March 31. On April 1, the pope will hold a collective audience attended by all three communities.

The visit has been in the works for several years but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It comes after deep-seeded tensions between the Catholic Church and Canadian Indigenous, specifically over the church’s role in Canada’s historic residential school system, flared up last summer when the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, prompting searches at other schools that unearthed hundreds more bodies.

The discovery of the remains in unmarked graves and the sheer quantity of them came as a shock to Canadian society, and the church faced immense public backlash and pressures to make an apology.

During the time Canada’s 130 residential schools were operative, around three-quarters of them were run by Catholic missionary orders. While these orders and the Canadian bishops as a whole have made public apologies, Pope Francis has not.

There has been speculation that he might make some form of public apology during the visit of the delegations this week, or during a papal visit to Canada.

Francis last year expressed his willingness to visit Canada as part of the country’s healing and reconciliation process and is expected to make an apology while there if the visit happens.

If he does so, it would be a direct response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which at the conclusion of its work in 2015, issued several action points for reconciliation with Indigenous communities, one of which is for the pope to make an apology on Canadian soil.

In his interview with Crux, Poisson said that for the indigenous delegates in Rome this week, “it’s a big honor to be received by the pope, to be heard by the pope, that the pope takes time for them…It’s extraordinary!”

“For them this is the big chief, the big pastor, the pope, so it will be for them and for us not the beginning, but an important step for this walking together,” he said, saying the delay in holding the visits ended up being beneficial, because “we’ve had time to meet each other, to know each other better.”

“I think that we learned something, and I think they learned something about us and about the church,” he said, adding one big lesson has been that “if we want to do something for them, we must do this with them.”

Poisson said the meetings between the pope and the delegates is primarily a time of listening in which the pope will hear the testimonies of residential school survivors and Elders in the communities.

“Whatever their story is, he can understand the situation better, and his visit to Canada will be more efficient in this way for reconciliation,” Poisson said, saying the papal visit to Canada will take place in the context “of this reconciliation with the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit” communities.

“There will be a place for them and for them with us – with the whole church in Canada, all of the people who are not indigenous, but who are Catholics in Canada – to turn a page together. Not to forget what happened, but to do something new,” he said.

Poisson said the fruits of the Rome meetings, which are just beginning, can already be seen in terms of what’s happening on the ground in Canada.

Not only is Poisson himself leading large-scale cultural projects aimed at reconciliation and education on Indigenous culture within his diocese, but many other bishops are too, he said, adding one discovery from working together for the delegation is a shared faith.

“My personal discovery is that, for these delegates, we have the same faith in the creator,” he said.

With their concept of the Holy Spirit and the emphasis placed on the protection of nature, Indigenous cultural tradition “can bring us something very positive,” he said.

One thing the church hopes to do as a result of these meetings, Poisson said, is to “make possible the transmission of faith and of the Gospel” within Indigenous cultural tradition.

Most Indigenous “are very Catholic in their roots,” he said, noting that “there’s no opposition between the culture and spirituality of the Indigenous and the missionaries” who came to Canada to evangelize them.

The goal of evangelization in these communities, he said, is to provide the Indigenous with “the opportunity to name in their faith God in the revelation of Jesus Christ, but not to make a complete change of what they add as a cultural spirituality.”

“We are present on the pastoral ground with them, always with new missionaries, pastoral agents, we are there, but to change this perception that the church wants to make the transmission of their culture impossible. It’s not true,” he said.

Poisson also spoke of specific requests made ahead of the visit by the Assembly of First Nations that the pope make a formal apology for the church’s role in the residential schools, and that he do it in Canada, and that he repeals papal bulls from the 1400s associated with the “Doctrine of Discovery” justifying the colonization of Indigenous in Canada.

Since the primary goal of the meetings with Pope Francis this week is to provide a space for listening, Poisson said, the requests are perhaps not being made “at a good place,” but stressed that this week’s meetings are intended above all as a time for the pope to hear “about their experience and what they want from the church for the future.”

In terms of what Pope Francis himself might say, Poisson said the Canadian bishops made suggestions about a meaningful message the pope could give during his final audience with all three communities.

“We asked him to say something very directly to them about what happened to them in the past with these residential schools,” he said, and hinted that a possible apology could be made, saying, “as bishops we did that in September; we apologized.”

“He’s the pope, he’ll find the right words and it’s not the first time that the pope will do that. He did that in Bolivia about all Indigenous people in the world. Benedict said something like this in Ireland, about sexual abuses, so he will find the words,” Poisson said.

In terms of a papal visit, Poisson said a handful of Canadian bishops, himself included, visited Rome in December and spoke to the pope about potential dates.

At the time, Francis “was very involved with this question, and he seems to me very happy to be invited,” Poisson said.

When the visit will take place “depends on the agenda of the pope,” he said, but voiced confidence that within a few weeks, “we will know when he will come to Canada.”

It was important that the visit of the delegations came first, he said, but the papal visit to Canada won’t be long after, “because we want it to be a follow-up of reconciliation. We want to keep the spirit of our meeting.”

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