A few observations about the papal visit


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Now that the papal visit is behind us, a few observations about that historic event.

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Now that the papal visit is behind us, a few observations about that historic event.

For starters, there was the grand entrance of the chiefs at Maskwacis on July 25.

The chiefs — hundreds of them — marched proudly into the powwow grounds, erect and strong, resplendent in the headdresses and ceremonial regalia, the crowd cheering and applauding their entry, war songs and victory songs in the air.

Awaiting them was Pope Francis, small and stooped in his white chair, weak and frail due to poor health, relying on a wheelchair to get around.

Watching the procession, I couldn’t help but to think of the stark contrast between the present and the past: For hundreds of years the church has held the commanding position in the relationship with Indigenous people, forcing them into a position of weakness and supplication.

But now the tables had turned. It was the Pope contritely coming to indigenous people as a supplicant, asking their forgiveness for the way the Church had treated and abused them in Canada for generations.

To their credit, the chiefs responded generously. This included the gift of a headdress, which the Pope willingly accepted.

As for the Roman Catholic Church in Canada more broadly, it, too, is greatly weakened. In 1985, an average of 77 per cent of Canadian Catholics attended religious services or gatherings at least once a year. In 2022 that figure had plummeted to 18 per cent, with only 14 per cent saying they go once or twice a month.

Of course, the pandemic makes it hard to know exactly what is happening today. But scholars who study religion in Canada say the decline will not be reversed; if anything, the pandemic simply sped it up.

This decline in attendance has implications for giving. If people aren’t in church, it’s hard to appeal to them to donate — including to the rejuvenated healing fund meant to help Indigenous people with their healing journey.

As for Indigenous people, maybe this is their time to be in ascendancy. As one woman told me about the grand entry of the chiefs: “I felt so proud watching them come in. I was proud to be Indigenous.”

If that’s the case, maybe the Pope’s visit is a turning point for them, a before-and-after that future historians will see as the time when Indigenous people began to heal and reclaim their place in Canadian life.

Perhaps this is also a learning moment for Roman Catholics and Indigenous, a time when they can help each other. After all, a feature of healthy relationships are reciprocity and mutual support. Maybe a weakened Roman Catholic Church can find strength and renewed purpose through reconciliation with Indigenous people, by engaging with their teachings and walking together with them to serve Creator.

Then there is the Doctrine of Discovery. This was a main sticking point during the Pontiff’s five-day stay. Would he renounce it? He came close, but he did not officially condemn the old idea.

And that’s how we non-Indigenous Canadians tend to think of it — as some ancient, historical document. But it has in fact become part of the legal system in Canada and the U.S. This makes it hard to denounce.

The first time it came up was in the U.S. in 1823, when that country’s Supreme Court ruled that two Native American communities in the Ohio River valley had no claim to land ownership due to the Doctrine of Discovery — their land belonged to the federal government.

It was invoked again in 2005 when the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg — yes, that icon of liberal values — used it to deny an Indigenous community’s claim to land.

In Canada, the doctrine has been referenced by the courts in 1888 and again in 2014.

I don’t say that to justify the doctrine, but simply to show it has become part of legal jurisprudence in both Canada and the U.S. A statement by the Pope condemning it can’t change those legal facts.

Or could it? Maybe someone has to take the lead, even just symbolically since Roman Catholic officials note the doctrine is no longer part of Church teaching; it has no legal or moral authority for Roman Catholics.

Canadian bishops are working with the Vatican to come up with a statement about the doctrine to try to clear things up. Perhaps a forceful statement by Pope Francis and the bishops will help set the stage for productive new discussions on this important subject.

Finally, it may be tempting for some other Christian denominations that didn’t operate residential schools to see this as just a Catholic issue. But they may have things to apologize for. I’m thinking especially of those evangelical churches that sent missionaries to the North to plant churches — with the result that some small Indigenous communities might have five or six Christian churches of different stripes.

These church planting efforts also negatively impacted Indigenous communities by fracturing them along denominational lines.

Maybe one day evangelical leaders will issue their own apologies for seeing Indigenous people merely as a mission field, and not respecting their unique beliefs, customs and traditions.

That would also be an important step along the road of reconciliation.


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John Longhurst

John Longhurst
Faith reporter

John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.

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