Special human moment made everyone smile

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My time in Rome last week was filled with many more stories than I could write, an ocean of information and emotion from having a front row seat to history in the making as Métis, First Nations and Inuit delegates shared their stories with Pope Francis — and received a personal apology in return.

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My time in Rome last week was filled with many more stories than I could write, an ocean of information and emotion from having a front row seat to history in the making as Métis, First Nations and Inuit delegates shared their stories with Pope Francis — and received a personal apology in return.

It was a profoundly religious experience. Each day began at 6:30 a.m. with a mass conducted by one of the five bishops on the trip and was followed by a traditional Indigenous sunrise ceremony.

Each meeting with the Pope began with prayer, often conducted in the language of the Indigenous person doing the praying. Press briefings were infused with references to the divine, God or Creator. Sometimes they included songs, prayers and sacred ceremonies.

Linda Daniels, a residential school survivor from Long Plains First Nation, is overcome with emotion as she is greeted at the Winnipeg airport by drummers and family after returning from her week-long trip to Rome as part of the First Nations delegation to meet with Pope Francis. (John Longhurst / Winnipeg Free Press)

Delegates recognized there was something beyond humankind at work during the week. As Regional Chief Gerald Antoine put it: “There are powers greater than us out there, working their ways to line things up the ways they need to be.”

When asked by a reporter if she thought the visit had taken too long to happen, Pixie Wells, a Métis from Abbotsford, B.C., said “Creator does things in Creator’s time. Creator made the timing right for us to be here now.”

On Thursday, four women sang and drummed in St. Peter’s Square before the First Nations delegates emerged from their meeting with the Pope. When asked why, one said: “Our artifacts are nearby (in the Vatican Museum). They contain our ancestors’ spirits. We are singing so they won’t be lonely.”

Women sang and drummed in St. Peter’s Square on Thursday before the First Nations delegates emerged from their meeting with the Pope. When asked why, one said: “Our artifacts are nearby (in the Vatican Museum). They contain our ancestors’ spirits. We are singing so they won’t be lonely.”(John Longhurst / Winnipeg Free Press)

Added Archbishop William McGrattan of Calgary of the time in Rome: “This work is divinely inspired, beyond our human ability to understand and recognize. I think we all sensed the presence of God, of Creator.”

While there were many heavy times, filled with emotional stories of horror and trauma, there were also many lighthearted moments. The delegates loved to laugh. They clearly enjoyed being together, and many new friendships were formed.

Meeting the Pope was a huge highlight for many, especially for Catholics on the trip — and there were many among the delegates.

Meeting Pope Francis was a huge highlight for many, especially for Catholics on the trip — and there were many among the delegates. (John Longhurst / Winnipeg Free Press)

This isn’t surprising. More than 500,000 Indigenous people in Canada identify as Catholics, something that some Canadians might find surprising given their terrible history at the hands of that church.

The meetings with the Pope generated some memorable experiences from some delegates.

When one delegate shook the Pope’s hand, she clasped her other hand over his and held it there for a moment. Her takeaway? “He has soft hands, like bread,” she said with a smile.

Indigenous representatives of the delegation fielded questions outside St. Peter’s Basilica after meeting with the Pope. (John Longhurst / Winnipeg Free Press)

When another shook his hand, she said to him: “I’m not going to wash my hand for a week!” They both laughed when she said that, she said.

There were lots of media present from Canada, the U.S. and Europe. About 75 reporters were in Rome for the visit; the media scrums in St. Peter’s Square were tight and packed.

Reporters could be an overbearing group at times, pushing cameras and microphones into the faces of delegates. But the delegates were patient in taking time to answer questions, even when it was hard.

Not only that, they thanked us for telling their stories to the world. More than one remarked it was the worldwide coverage of Kamloops that helped them get the attention they needed to begin the healing journey.

For journalists who are accustomed to mostly receiving criticism and hate mail, that was an unexpected and gratifying experience.

While the delegates agreed the visit was worthwhile, they were aware not everyone back home did. Their Facebook pages were filled with angry and vitriolic criticisms of the trip. At one dinner, a delegate implored the others to turn off social media; it wasn’t good for their souls or for the goals of the trip, he said.

That anger is real, and it needs to be taken into account — by the delegates, and also by the church. It will take a long time to heal the wounds of the past. Some will never find healing.

The story isn’t over. Everyone agreed the visit, and the papal apology, was just the beginning of a long road ahead. Indigenous people and the church will need to continue to be in conversation in the months leading up to the Pope’s visit to Canada — perhaps as early as this summer — and beyond.

The final audience with the Pope was filled with all the solemnity one would expect from such an occasion. But when it ended, the Pope stood up, waved at the delegates and said “Thanks for the visit. Bye-bye.” It was a special human moment, one that made everyone smile.

John Longhurst was in Rome last week to cover the papal visit by Indigenous people for the Free Press. See coverage of the visit at www.winnipegfreepress.com/papalvisit

faith@freepress.mb.ca

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