KRAKOW, Poland — As Pope Francis begins his Canadian trip today, he will be joined by one priest who became a symbol of the journey before it even began.
Father Cristino Bouvette’s father is a member of the Cree-Metis people and his mother is Italian. Thus, he was chosen to become a bridge between the Vatican and First Nations of Canada. He’s the national liturgical coordinator of the pope’s visit, and the motto of his life could be the same as the trip’s – “Walking together.”
Not many people feel so comfortable both in Vatican corridors and sitting around a fire with elders.
“If I can have, as we say, a foot in both worlds, I hope that it gives also an example to everybody that if it’s possible inside of one man, it can be possible for us all,” Bouvette said. “Reconciliation is already being lived. This is not something new and this is not something that will begin because the pope has come.”
In fact, Bouvette was living it for a long time. His own kokum – meaning “grandmother” in the Cree language – was a survivor of a residential school run by Protestant ministers.
“She was there for 12 years. She never shared with me in great detail about the specific elements of that [time] which she found most difficult or painful. But I know that it was overall mostly because of the separation from her family for the long part of the year,” Bouvette told Polish Television.
For many survivors residential schools left an indelible mark, including an inability to love and be loved.
“They say that because of their separation from their parents, they did not learn how to be good parents themselves. And I understand why that would be the case,” Bouvette said, while insisting it was not his grandmother’s fate.
“She had 14 children. And for them to love her and respect her how they did, I think all of her life she must have been a truly wonderful and remarkable mother. She was a wonderful, beautiful person.”
Her faith, says Bouvette, was one of the most important parts of her life: “It was not imposed upon her by the school. It was a gift, an inheritance of her family’s legacy, because there had been three generations of Christians in her family already.”
Bouvette’s grandmother was never Catholic. The school she went to was run by a Protestant denomination in Canada, and she remained a Protestant until middle age.
“My father chose to become Catholic when he married my Italian mother, who was, of course, very Catholic,” he said.
When his grandmother learned he was becoming a Catholic priest, she told him: “I have also known good nuns and priests, and I know you would be one of those” – words that he says are a source of great strength for him to this day.
She didn’t live to see her grandchild running a papal trip of reconciliation in Canada, but he sees the role as something symbolic and special.
“I don’t mean to sound too dramatic,” Bouvette said, “but in a way I hope I am the embodiment of the work I am trying to do.”
“I’m trying to be a bridge between two worlds, the Vatican and all of its structure and protocols, and Indigenous peoples, who in many respects, do not have that kind of structure or live by such rigor. But they do have their protocols, they have their traditions. And to bring those two worlds together – it can be complicated at times. But I feel very comfortable in both of them.”
Bouvette stressed that “walking together” in a pilgrimage means that “other pilgrims have gone before you and other pilgrims will come afterwards.” The pope, therefore, “is coming to participate in something that has already begun and is already lived in our country, but he will give us a new way and a new example to try and live it better.”
The five-day trip to Canada concludes July 29. It begins in Edmonton in Western Canada, where most residential schools were located. Then the pope will fly to the East coast to visit Quebec before going to the Arctic lands of Iqaluit, home of the Inuits.
One of the most symbolic moments of the journey will be a welcome ceremony at the site of Muscogee Nation, Bouvette said.
“In Cree language they call that place Bear Hills because muskoka means bear and gee means hills.”
The pope will be seated “in the circle that they have for their Powwow,” Bouvette said. There will be “the entrance of all of the chiefs of the various nations dressed in their regalia with traditional music and dancing, moving forward,” all to welcome the pope, the priest said.
In fact, the pope “is being recognized as a chief, too,” he said. “That, I think, will be very moving for him and for the whole world to see the beauty and the richness of a culture that, though there were efforts to eliminate it, has not disappeared and is still present to us and able to share its beauty with us.”
One hundred and fifty thousand Indigenous children were placed in the residential schools, many taken from their families by the government, while others were sent by parents who felt there was no other choice. This history has impacted Bouvette’s family for generations.
“I can speak Italian. I received the language of my immigrant grandparents to this country who transmitted their culture and language for two generations. But my other grandmother, whose family has always been here, and spoke Cree as a child, did not pass on that language because she lost it. How can we account for that? That is the kind of suffering that has been caused.”
Bouvette hopes that the pope’s trip “is saying we are not hiding from this history. We are not pretending that it did not happen.”
He also hopes for broader unity – the trip was not organized because “a few chiefs talked to a couple of cardinals in the Vatican, and we had a papal visit.” It took “hundreds and hundreds of non-Indigenous people in Canada to volunteer more hours of their life than they probably thought they had to offer to make all of this happen. It is remarkable and beautiful,” he said.
“We are all being invited to become the neighbors of each other in this country, to see each other as neighbors, because we share this land together and that we can live in harmony and unity if we try,” he said.