ROME – Seven days before he’s set to depart for what he called a “penitential” pilgrimage to Canada, Pope Francis set the tone for the journey during his Sunday Angelus. He said he will apologize, again, to Indigenous groups for abuses inflicted by the Catholic Church.
Assuming Francis does go, it will mark his first outing since troubles with his right knee forced him to cancel a series of commitments, including a trip to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo earlier this month.
The pope began his remarks by acknowledging that he would depart Rome July 24, “God willing.”
“Dear brothers and sisters of Canada, as you know I will come among you, above all, in the name of Jesus to meet and embrace the Indigenous populations,” Francis said.
“Unfortunately, in Canada, many Christians, including some members of religious institutions, contributed to policies of cultural assimilation that, in the past, gravely damaged, in various ways, native communities,” the pope said, speaking from a window of the Apostolic Palace overlooking St. Peter’s Square.
“For this reason, recently, at the Vatican, I received several groups, representatives of Indigenous peoples, to whom I manifested my sorrow and my solidarity for the evil they have suffered,” he said.
“Now, I will make a penitential voyage that I hope, with the grace of God, can contribute to the path of healing and reconciliation already undertaken,” said Francis, appealing for the faithful to “accompany me with prayers.”
At the center of the controversies are church-run residential schools, a government-launched and funded initiative, which, for over a century, forcefully attempted to adapt the Indigenous to Canadian society by removing children from their families and communities. Indigenous people say it was “cultural genocide.”
“With the benefit of time, we can say that they were objectively negative,” said Brazilian Father Antonio Hofmeister, who ministered in Brazil’s Amazon region and lived in Canada for several years before landing in the Vatican.
“The idea was not to integrate Canadian and Indigenous culture, but to force them into adopting Western values that were foreign to them.”
Children were removed from their families by the police, he said, and left in residential schools run by the government or religious institutions, including the Catholic Church.
“The government didn’t have the [human] resources to run the schools, hence its request for religious institutions to be involved,” he said. “But last year, the finding of unmarked tombs in one of these schools run by the church, flared it all back up.”
More than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were forced to attend government-funded residential schools operated by the Catholic, Anglican, and other churches between the 1870s and 1997.
Pope Francis welcomed representatives of these three groups earlier this year, first with each group privately and then with all three together, in a meeting that was live streamed.
The pontiff addressed the problem of the residential schools head on: “Listening to your voices, I was able to enter into and be deeply grieved by the stories of the suffering, hardship, discrimination and various forms of abuse that some of you experienced, particularly in the residential schools.”
“It is chilling to think of determined efforts to instill a sense of inferiority, to rob people of their cultural identity, to sever their roots, and to consider all the personal and social effects that this continues to entail: unresolved traumas that have become inter-generational traumas,” he said.
Francis’s July 24-29 visit will include stops in Edmonton, Quebec City, and Iqaluit.
“Jesus tells the apostles to go throughout the world and proclaim the Gospel,” Hofmeister said. “Francis will become the first pope to visit the Artic Circle. He is going to a literal periphery of the world. It’s a highly significant stop, not only for the truth and reconciliation efforts, but also to raise awareness on the ecology question and his encyclical Laudato Si’.”
Despite the challenges Francis is bound to face during the visit, the priest said that his public apology was well received by most, and that the biggest hurdle might not be the Indigenous peoples, since the pope is willing to “humiliate” himself in order to foster reconciliation.
The real problem, Hofmeister said, might be the Canadian government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has publicly demanded a papal apology, while saying that he is “horrified and ashamed” by what the Catholic Church did in the residential schools.
“I’m biased, because I am a priest, but I see that the church is truly working towards reconciliation, while the government isn’t,” he said. “The government’s agenda on many issues, including family and life, is hostile to the church’s.”
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma