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ROME – After Friday’s announcement of Pope Francis’s visit to Canada this summer, calls are already being made by government leaders and Indigenous communities for him to issue a formal apology for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system.
The announcement of the pope’s visit, set for July 24-30, came as a surprise to some given Francis’s ongoing knee trouble, which has recently confined him to a wheelchair.
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, coordinator of the papal visit, said during a May 13 press conference that he was “astonished” the pope decided to come given his current condition.
Not only has the pope’s physical mobility decreased, but he has canceled events due to his knee pain, and the Vatican recently postponed a planned trip to Lebanon next month, citing health reasons.
He is still scheduled to visit the Congo and South Sudan in early July, just a few weeks prior to his visit to Canada, which Smith said is “an ambitious itinerary for a young person in the best of health.”
“That’s why I am more than a little surprised that this is still going to happen,” he said, adding, “it shows just how determined he is to be here for the Indigenous peoples to the degree that he can.”
Pope Francis is scheduled to make three stops during his trip to Canada: the cities of Edmonton, Quebec, and Iqaluit.
Earlier this year the pope held private individual meetings in Rome with delegations from Canada’s Assembly of First Nations (AFN), Métis National Council, and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami communities, who were accompanied by members of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB).
The meetings, which took place March 28 – April 1, were attended by Elders, “knowledge keepers,” residential school survivors, and young people from across Canada.
At the end of the week’s meetings, Pope Francis issued a highly anticipated apology for the “deplorable conduct” of the Catholic Church related to its role in the Canadian residential school system.
Requests are already being made for the pope to use his visit to Canada as an opportunity to comply with one of the Calls to Action of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which asked that the pope make a formal apology for abuses committed by the Catholic Church at residential schools on Canadian soil.
In a May 13 tweet following the Vatican’s announcement of the papal visit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the pope was visiting “to formally deliver the Roman Catholic Church’s apology for its role in operating residential schools that caused lasting pain and suffering for Indigenous Peoples across the country.”
The Métis National Council, which participated in the Rome delegations, said they welcomed the announcement of the pope’s visit, and reiterated “the need for an apology to happen in Canada.”
They also called for a commitment from the church “to action in the areas of truth, reconciliation, justice, and healing.”
Cassidy Caron, president of the Métis National Council, said, “I can only believe that the powerful words of Métis, Inuit and First Nation Survivors during our visit to the Vatican were taken to heart by Pope Francis and further compelled him to visit our homelands.”
“The significance of a papal apology on the very soil that residential school atrocities occurred cannot be stressed enough,” she said.
Speaking to Crux, Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme, Québec and president of the CCCB, said the pope’s visit to Canada is a continuation of the conversation that happened with Indigenous delegates in March, and that a papal apology is expected.
“We must put together the delegation in Rome and also this visit. It’s the same process for the pope to involve himself in this situation with our brothers and sisters from Indigenous communities,” he said, adding, “I will be very surprised if in Canada, the pope will not be able to do some memory about what happened in the past, just like he did in Rome.”
Smith also voiced confidence that a papal apology will be given during Pope Francis’s visit to Canada, saying, “we fully expect that the pope will reiterate the apology he did give in Rome.”
Given Pope Francis’s limited mobility and the fact that he will likely still be using a wheelchair during his six-day visit to Canada, he is only visiting three cities that will be “hubs” from which he will be able to reach meaningful, but easily accessible sites, Smith said.
Smith confirmed that the pope will visit a residential school site and other “relevant locations” during his visit, and said a stop at Lac Ste. Anne, a large lake in central Alberta, “is a strong possibility” given the importance of devotion to St. Anne, grandmother of Jesus, in Indigenous devotion.
Asked whether the pope will meet with residential school survivors during the visit, Smith said the details are still being worked out, but that survivors would participate in papal events.
“Were it not for his desire to engage with the Indigenous peoples on their land, he would probably not be traveling to Canada,” Smith said, saying Indigenous culture, Indigenous spirituality, Indigenous ways, “will be a priority” throughout the visit.
In her statement, Caron said engagement of the participation of survivors will be a priority for the Métis community.
“Our priority remains ensuring that survivors receive whatever is needed most to keep moving forward in their healing journeys, including a formal apology directly from the pope,” she said.
While the Métis National Council was not consulted about the places the pope will visit, “we hope that the Vatican will work closely with us in the spirit of reconciliation to ensure that there is adequate resourcing for any and all survivors who wish to attend,” she said.
In terms of accommodations for the pope and precautions for his health and limited mobility, Poisson said the bishops are trying to ensure there are just two or three venues where the pope will stay during the visit, and wheelchair accessibility is being evaluated.
When John Paul II visited Canada in 2002, he was in a wheelchair, “so it’s possible for the pope to have the essential service to be able to make this visit,” Poisson said.
Poisson stressed the importance of not just looking to the past, but to the future, and said the papal visit is an opportunity to carve out a path forward in terms of healing and reconciliation.
The visit should not be focused solely on what happened, but it must also lead to “doing something better for today.”
This, he said, is the purpose of a $30 million national fundraising pledge in support of Indigenous communities launched by the Canadian bishops.
“For us, for the Catholic Church in Canada, that’s a lot of money,” Poisson said. “It is for projects together, and not to pay for the past, it’s to do something for them, with them, now and for the future.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen