The "extraordinary" meeting between the Pope and representatives from First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities later this year proves the Pope is serious about reconciliation, the archbishop of Winnipeg says.
Richard Gagnon, who is also president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, pointed out the pontiff will meet for one hour with each delegation, and then for an hour with all three groups together, from Dec. 17 to 20.
"The Pope is a world leader (and) most heads of state get 15 minutes with him," he said.
The amount of time he will spend with the delegations is a sign of "how important this is to him," said the archbishop, who countered reports the Pope isn’t interested in reconciliation with Indigenous groups. They've been calling for a papal apology after unmarked burial sites were found near former residential schools, including two in B.C., and one in southeastern Saskatchewan. The Catholic church was involved in running many of the schools, which were put in place by the federal government.
"This is not a political exercise for the Pope, not ticking off a box," he said. "It’s a pastoral process and encounter, a time of dialogue, of sitting with people and listening. He wants to hear from them directly."
At the meeting, which will take place in Rome, the archbishop and others from the Catholic Church will be observers, he said, not participants. "We are deferring to the delegates."
As for whether the Pope will come to Canada and apologize to Indigenous peoples, the archbishop said he can’t presume what the Pope will say or do.
Gagnon said he would "strongly support an apology," similar to the Pope’s apology to Indigenous people in South America in 2015.
"If he offered an apology for wrongs done in South America, why not also in Canada?" he asked. "That’s the way he approaches reconciliation."
He added the Pope is "open to coming, and that’s a wonderful thing," noting such a visit will be discussed by the Canadian bishops in September.
The archbishop also addressed criticism of a homily he gave in Brandon a week ago in which he said the Catholic Church in Canada is facing "persecution."
In the homily, he said he is getting "bombarded a lot" by criticism and is noticing a lot of inaccurate information, exaggerations and false ideas about the church in the media in relation to residential schools.
"And so I say in my heart, ‘You know something? There’s a persecution happening here," he said during the homily.
The archbishop acknowledged "maybe that’s a bit strong of a word," but said his comment was "fuelled" by his reaction to misinformation being spread about the church.
He’s heard reports about priests and nuns killing children, which "are not true," he said, adding "such reporting and rumours fuel flames of bigotry against the church. It inflames people to act on false information."
On Wednesday, a Catholic church burned to the ground in Morinville, Alta., in what police said was arson. Since May 27, when it was announced unmarked graves had been found near a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., a handful of churches have been set on fire, including at Cross Lake in northern Manitoba and in two communities in B.C.'s Okanagan region.
He realizes people are upset at the church, but he wants Canadians to know it isn’t "sitting idly by. We’ve been in discussions with the three Indigenous groups for almost three years, and apologies have been issued since 1991. We’re not sitting back and doing nothing."
He said he and the bishops are disappointed the church's campaign to raise $25 million for residential school survivors and their families, which began in 2005, brought in only $3.7 million before it was scrapped in 2013.
The commitment was part of an agreement that stemmed from lawsuits filed against the federal government and churches that ran the schools.
The agreement obligated the 50 Catholic Church entities (mainly religious orders, but also a few dioceses) to pay $29 million in cash, set up a $25-million fund for programs and to raise another $25 million.
"Something was obviously lacking with it," Gagnon said, noting there is talk among Canada’s Catholic bishops about revisiting the idea.
"But if we go back, we won’t use the same model," he said, adding it would be important to include Indigenous voices.
Right now, the focus is on the meetings in Rome, he said, noting there are frequent meetings between church officials and members of the three groups.
"This is a time of challenge, but also a time of opportunity for us as a church and as a whole country in dealing with our very important relationships with Indigenous people; an opportunity to build a new future together, one based on charity, consideration and respect for each other," he said.
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.