Pope Francis’ Bold Step in Canada

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s apology to the Indigenous peoples of Canada served as the foundation for further enriching culture through the Gospel.

Pope Francis addresses participants of the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage July 26 northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Pope Francis addresses participants of the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage July 26 northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

The apology that Pope Francis came to Canada to deliver was offered on Monday morning. It was well-received.  

That left another four days in Canada. The papal visit was explicitly organized as a visit to Canada’s Indigenous peoples, not a visit to the Catholic Church as a whole. So would the Holy Father just repeat himself for four days, saying the same thing to only slightly different audiences in different places? 

Pope Francis clearly intends to make better use of his visit than that.  

After the apology, Pope Francis shifted to another theme he wishes to emphasize, namely, that in the encounter of cultures there can be mutual enrichment, with both cultures purified and elevated by the Gospel. That is, and has been for several decades now, standard Catholic teaching on evangelization, mission to the nations, and inculturation of the faith.  


A People Without Sin? 

Nevertheless, in Canada in recent years the local Church has shied away from saying that, presenting Indigenous cultures as untouched by original sin, raising implicitly the fundamental question of whether Indigenous peoples need the Gospel at all. 

One innocent but telling example was this line that was inserted into the Holy Father’s first address of the visit, the apology at Maskwacis: 

“You have treated [the earth] as a gift of the Creator to be shared with others and to be cherished in harmony with all that exists, in profound fellowship with all living beings.” 

“Profound fellowship” is an idiosyncratic way to describe what is celebrated at one of Alberta’s leading Indigenous culture museums, the Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump World Heritage Site. 

Another example, more serious, is that the official media briefing materials for Thursday’s papal Mass at Ste. Anne de  Beaupré present the figure of St. Kateri Tekakwitha with no reference to the great drama of her life, namely the opposition of family and fellow Mohawks to her Christian conversion, so much so that she effectively went into exile from her home village. She lived the Gospel warning from Jesus about the faith bringing division even into the family, but it seems impolitic to suggest that the words of Jesus could be applied to Indigenous peoples. 

And it goes without saying that the Jesuit martyrs, brutally killed by the Iroquois, are not mentioned. Literally, it has gone without saying — there has not been even a whisper of their existence.  

Pope Francis has gently tried to correct this unbalanced view in two respects, in light of the liturgy and in regard to education.  


Liturgical Symbols 

Few observers would have anticipated that a theme raised in the Holy Father’s recent apostolic letter on the liturgy, Desiderio Desideravi, would appear prominently in the Canadian visit. Recall what Pope Francis wrote there on June 29: 

“Therefore, the fundamental question is this: how do we recover the capacity to live completely the liturgical action? This was the objective of the Council’s reform. The challenge is extremely demanding because modern people — not in all cultures to the same degree — have lost the capacity to engage with symbolic action, which is an essential trait of the liturgical act. (27) 

“With post-modernity, people feel themselves even more lost, without references of any sort, lacking in values because they have become indifferent, completely orphaned, living a fragmentation in which a horizon of meaning seems impossible” (28). 

This incapacity to engage in symbolic action is lethal for the liturgy, as it closes off the person to the “horizon of meaning.” The horizon of the material world is always finite; symbols can take us beyond that horizon.  

The Holy Father observes that not all cultures are afflicted with symbolic illiteracy to the same degree. He sees a greater capacity in Indigenous cultures. How can the Church today be enriched by them? At Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, Pope Francis said this: 

“You, my dear Indigenous brothers and sisters, have much to teach us about the symbolism and vital meaning of the tree. Joined to the earth by its roots, a tree gives oxygen through its leaves and nourishes us by its fruit. It is impressive to see how the symbolism of the tree is reflected in the architecture of this church, where a tree trunk symbolically unites the earth below and the altar on which Jesus reconciles us in the Eucharist in an act of cosmic love that joins heaven and earth, embracing […] all creation. ”

Indigenous rituals can enrich our own capacity for symbolic action, and, at the same time, the Gospel gives deeper meaning to those symbolic rituals.  

Consider the Indigenous practice of facing all four directions (“the cardinal points” in the Pope’s text) when praying to the Creator. The Holy Father gave it this interpretation: 

“On the cross, Christ reconciles and brings back together everything that seemed unthinkable and unforgivable; he embraces everyone and everything. Everyone and everything! The Indigenous peoples attribute a powerful cosmic significance to the cardinal points, seen not only as geographical reference points but also as dimensions that embrace all reality and indicate the way to heal it. …”

“This church appropriates that symbolism of the cardinal points and gives it a Christological meaning. Jesus, through the four extremities of his cross, has embraced the four cardinal points and has brought together the most distant peoples; Jesus has brought healing and peace to all things (Ephesians2:14). On the cross, he accomplished God’s plan: ‘to reconcile all things’” (Colossians1:20). 

To “appropriate” and “give Christological meaning” is a marvelous expression of what mutual enrichment can mean. And it was bold of the Holy Father to use the word “appropriate” when today “appropriation” is usually deployed to mean that one culture cannot really receive the gifts of another.  


Education, Language and Culture  

Even more bold was the papal address at Lac Ste. Anne, a long-standing pilgrimage site for Indigenous peoples and, since 1887, a pilgrimage site for Catholics to honor the mother of the Virgin Mary and grandmother of Christ. The annual Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage is the largest Indigenous religious event of the year, a reminder that the majority of Canada’s Indigenous peoples are Christian. 

At Lac Ste. Anne, the Holy Father praised Christian missionaries for their efforts to preserve and protect Indigenous languages. It was a fine example of how Pope Francis is able to get a hearing for arguments that might be rejected coming from others. In this case, the Holy Father was echoing what Pope Benedict XVI said in 2008 at the College des Bernardins in Paris on the contribution of monks to a “culture of the word” — language, translation, interpretation.  

Pope Francis turned to Mexico for his example, but missionaries did the same work in 17th-century Quebec: 

“At the dramatic time of the conquest, Our Lady of Guadalupe transmitted the true faith to the Indigenous people, speaking their own language and clothed in their own garments, without violence or imposition. Shortly afterwards, with the arrival of printing, the first grammar books and catechisms were produced in Indigenous languages. How much good was done in this regard by those missionaries who, as authentic evangelizers, preserved Indigenous languages and cultures in many parts of the world!”

In 2014, Pope Francis canonized Marie de l’Incarnation, a 17th-century French missionary in Quebec, waiving the requirement for a miracle. She not only learned Indigenous languages, but developed an alphabet and grammar to teach Indigenous girls, who at that time had little, if any, access to education. 

It cannot be emphasized too much how striking and courageous it was for Pope Francis to speak in this way, given that the Church in Canada has gone entirely silent on the matter. 

Most of the attention to the Pope’s words in Canada has been on what he says that others — both state and ecclesial authorities — have been saying for decades, namely the offering of apologies. But just as important is what he says now that others have not been saying. Will they follow his lead?