A delegation of Indigenous people expects to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican this fall to discuss the role of the Roman Catholic Church in Canada’s residential school system.
The meeting was confirmed by Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg, who is president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.
A date for the meeting has not been set, but Gagnon expects to be part of the delegation.
Gagnon has been a member of a working group of Catholic bishops that has been meeting with a group of Indigenous leaders for the past four years to discuss ways the church can fulfil its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people, and the role of the Pope in that process.
The working group includes Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and David Chartrand, vice-president of the Métis National Council.
Originally, the working group had planned for the delegation to meet the Pope last fall, but that was postponed by the pandemic, Gagnon said.
One goal of the working group meetings was to secure a meeting with the Pope, Gagnon said, adding the Pope "is very interested in reconciliation in Canada with Indigenous people. He wants the church to do the right thing."
As for whether the Pope will apologize, "I don't know what he would say, but in my conversations with him, he is not against it," Gagnon said, adding "he has great compassion for those who have suffered."
The Pope "is very interested in reconciliation in Canada with Indigenous people. He wants the church to do the right thing." – Archbishop of Winnipeg Richard Gagnon
Such an apology would be "very significant and important," he said. "It would mean a lot to Indigenous people."
A papal visit to Canada is also part of the working group’s discussion, he said, adding such a visit would require a great deal of thought and planning.
"The Pope coming to Canada would be a pretty big thing. We would want to make sure it is done right and proper. A papal visit needs to be thought through," he said.
This would include making sure such a visit covers the "mosaic" of issues facing Indigenous people and the church, including residential schools. It would also need to take into consideration the various needs of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, he said.
An invitation for a Papal visit would have to be issued by Canadian bishops.
Gagnon took issue with the idea that Catholics in Canada have refused to apologize to Indigenous people.
Various dioceses and religious orders have apologized, the first one was given in 1991. "So to say an apology hasn’t been given isn’t correct," he said.
He believes this misinformation is the result of Canadians not understanding how the church is organized and operates in Canada.
"There is no Catholic Church in Canada," that can issue an apology, he said. "There are Catholic churches in Canada, made up of independent dioceses."
The archbishops of dioceses make their own decisions for their dioceses, including about apologies.
They meet annually through the Canadian conference, but it is not "the head office" for the Catholic Church and cannot speak on behalf of all the dioceses.
Likewise, the Pope can’t unilaterally issue an apology or tell his fellow Canadian bishops what to do in their country or dioceses.
"The Catholic Church is not a giant organization with the Pope at the top," Gagnon said, although the Pope is very influential in matters of doctrine and faith as the successor to St. Peter.
Gagnon acknowledged the discovery of the 215 graves at the former residential school in Kamloops, B.C., has hastened action on this issue.
"As bishops, we feel very deeply the pain of residential schools," he said, adding he expects dioceses across the country would be open to assisting with the uncovering of more gravesites "on a diocese-by-diocese basis."
"We are very keen to listen to Indigenous people," he said. "We want to be sure all the truth comes out."
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.