Papal visit puts reconciliation in global spotlight

On Sunday morning, in Edmonton, at around 11 a.m., a plane carrying Pope Francis will arrive, marking Canada’s fourth papal visit.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/07/2022 (191 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

On Sunday morning, in Edmonton, at around 11 a.m., a plane carrying Pope Francis will arrive, marking Canada’s fourth papal visit.

The following day, the Pope will travel to former Ermineskin residential school site to meet with residential school survivors. He will spend the remainder of the week in Quebec City and Iqaluit, meeting with Indigenous communities, church leaders and providing a few public addresses.

There will be some events designed to celebrate Catholicism — such as a huge mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium — but this visit is mostly business.

Francis has described this trip as a “pilgrimage,” following up his apology in April to First Nations, Métis and Inuit representatives for the church’s role in residential schools.

Regretting “the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church,” Pope Francis said: “I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all of my heart: I am very sorry.”

Anyone in an abusive relationship knows, however, an apology means nothing without evidence of change.

Here are five markers to watch for during next week:

First, how will the Pope’s words be accepted?

In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada called on the Pope to come to Canada “within one year” and apologize for the church’s role in the residential school system. It has now been six long years.

The Catholic Church has a huge footprint in communities throughout Canada (and in particular Indigenous communities) and is at a critical juncture. Many see the church as archaic, conservative, and too inflexible — evidenced by the ongoing refusal to “do the right thing” and try to rebuild relations with Indigenous peoples.

Canadian Catholic leaders have much riding on this visit. A good response by Indigenous peoples to the Pope’s words could go a long way to saving Catholicism in many circles in the country.

A bad response would do damage, not just nationally but internationally.

Second, what will the Pope say?

The Pope has already apologized and will undoubtedly do so again during every stop. The question is what will he add.

Over the past 15 months, over 1,000 potential unmarked gravesites have been found at former residential school sites run by the Catholic church. There continues to be rediscovery of perpetrated harms.

It has sparked international condemnation and what many have called a “public reckoning” against the church.

Will the Pope take responsibility for children who died at the schools? Will he promise to defrock perpetrators of harm? Will he stop blaming “members of the church” and recognize sexual and physical abuse is a systemic problem in the church itself?

(While I’m being optimistic, the Pope has also been called upon to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery — 15th century papal decrees saying Europeans could claim all lands inhabited by non-Christians.)

Third, will the Catholic Church finally fulfill its promises?

In 2006, leaders of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops agreed as a part of the legal residential school settlement agreement to create a $25-million healing and reconciliation fund for survivors and their families.

To date, only $4 million has been raised, with the church promising new efforts that have not materialized.

The church has also promised to provide access to all records on residential schools. While some have been provided to the Winnipeg-based Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, there are many in the Vatican and other Catholic archives that have yet to be accessed.

It is clear the only person who possibly could motivate Canadian Catholic leaders to perform the restitution promised to survivors is the Pope.

Fourth, will the Pope’s visit produce more harm or less?

On Friday, Treaty 6 chiefs reminded Canadians next week’s papal visit will spark many traumas for Indigenous survivors and their communities. They called on more funds then the $30 million promised to support Indigenous communities during the visit.

Speaking of survivors, this past week, many complained money for travel and accommodation was difficult to obtain. Indigenous leaders said they were not considered or consulted on the Pope’s schedule.

Catholic leaders — who have called on Catholic donors to cover the $15-million price tag for Pope Francis’ visit — have also used the occasion to create new fundraising opportunities, such as a request to Catholics trying to get tickets for the Pope’s stadium address to “donate and support church activities.”

Assembly of First Nations national chief Roseanne Archibald called these efforts “inappropriate.”

Finally: five, what will happen next?

Indigenous relationships with Canadians, the Catholic Church and the Pope won’t end no matter what happens this week.

By the time the Pope flies back to Rome, it will be clear whether this trip helped or hindered reconciliation. The journey starts Saturday.

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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