Pope Francis’ Canada Pilgrimage Reflects Papal Power of Presence

COMMENTARY: The Holy Father’s July visit charted a path for Canada’s bishops to reconcile with the country’s Indigenous peoples.

During his visit, Pope Francis visited the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, where he blessed a banner with the names of children from residential schools. Then he prayed privately in Maskwacis Cemetery.
During his visit, Pope Francis visited the church dedicated to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, where he blessed a banner with the names of children from residential schools. Then he prayed privately in Maskwacis Cemetery. (photo: National Catholic Register / Vatican Media)

The papal visit to Canada was longer than Pope Francis has made to any other single country, save for his first visit to Brazil for World Youth Day. In the immediate aftermath of his visit, made with no little determination against physical debilitation, some initial considerations suggest themselves. 

What Pope Francis said in Canada was not notably different than what he said in Rome in April, after spending several days in lengthy audiences with Canada’s Indigenous leaders. The apologies he offered in both Rome and Canada were more careful and less detailed than dozens of other apologies from Canadian religious orders and bishops dating back more than 30 years. 

Yet the power of papal presence made a significant difference — and not just for Catholics. The archbishop of Canterbury, for example, made a similar six-day residential-schools apology visit to Canada three months ago, and the general media took no notice whatsoever. It is the pope who matters in a singular way.

The Catholic Church is a many-splendored thing, but there are some things that, symbolically, only the pope can do. There was a touch of Acts 5 in the Holy Father’s presence in Canada, as though the shadow of Peter itself was a healing presence. 


The Penitential Papacy

Pope Francis deliberately framed his apology in Canada in light of St. John Paul II’s desire to put the request for forgiveness at the heart of the Great Jubilee 2000. That was considered novel then, even though a 1998 book had already compiled 94 mea culpas of John Paul.

Since then, both Benedict XVI and Francis have made contrition a key part of the papacy. Hence, the debate in Canada was not over whether the Pope would apologize, but the nature and scope of the apology. 

In Canada, the fact of a papal apology was simply taken for granted. Nevertheless, as the first papal visit organized as a “penitential pilgrimage,” as Pope Francis himself repeatedly put it, the Canadian visit marked another step in a remarkable development in the papacy since St. Paul VI. The pope is not only the universal pastor but also the primary penitent.


Telling Truths

“Truth and Reconciliation” has been the title under which the residential schools’ legacy has been addressed in Canada. Yet, for several years now, Canadian Catholic leaders — bishops, religious-order superiors, academic institutions — have steadfastly remained silent on any good that the early Christian missionaries may have done. In the search for reconciliation, some truths have not been told.

Pope Francis — to the consternation of many, including some Catholic leaders — repeatedly defended the good that was done by Canada’s early missionaries. Consider his summary of the trip given at the first general audience after his return to Rome:

“And, indeed, the motto of the journey, ‘Walking Together,’ explains this somewhat: a path of reconciliation and healing, which presupposes historical knowledge, listening to the survivors, awareness and above all conversion, a change of mentality. This in-depth study shows that, on the one hand, some men and women of the Church were among the most decisive and courageous supporters of the dignity of the Indigenous peoples, coming to their defense and contributing to raising awareness of their languages and cultures; but, on the other hand, there was, unfortunately, no shortage of Christians, that is, priests, men and women religious and laypeople, who participated in programs that today we understand are unacceptable and also contrary to the Gospel. And this is why I went to ask for forgiveness, on behalf of the Church.”

That is rather unremarkable, except that it has gone unremarked for quite some time now. Whether the Holy Father’s visit will help Catholic leaders regain confidence in their own history remains to be seen. 

Pope Francis also briefly and directly made the point, in the presence of the prime minister in Quebec, that the residential schools were a government program:

“In that deplorable system, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, which separated many children from their families, different local Catholic institutions had a part.” 

But the largest part was that of the government.


Saying It Again

The papal visit was too long. A few days in western Canada, where most of the Indigenous residential schools were, would have been sufficient. The highlights of the visit were all in Alberta — the apology at the site of a former residential school and the pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne on St. Anne’s feast day, July 26.

The extra days in Quebec meant that the Holy Father was repeating himself every day. Thus, from a media point of view, the coverage shifted from what he said (no longer news by Day 3) to discordant reactions to what the Holy Father said.


Penance Not Popular

The Canada visit drew some of the smallest crowds in the history of papal travel. The largest event, the papal Mass in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium, was staged to accommodate some 70,000 people, with an overflow section for the remaining thousands outside. A generous official estimate put the crowd at 40,000. Aerial shots confirmed what could be sensed in parishes in the weeks leading up to the visit: There was low interest in the ordinary Catholic population.

At the papal Mass at the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, the plaza outside the church was three-quarters empty. More people attended the Holy Father’s Angelus address upon his return to Rome the following Sunday.

Despite a commitment from both Canada’s bishops and the federal government (which made more than $30 million available for the purpose), that former residential-school students would have their travel costs covered to attend papal events, the spaces allotted for Indigenous peoples were not filled, even at the main papal apology.

It is not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. For example, the visits of Pope Francis to Ireland and Chile, both of which were related to the abuse crisis, drew embarrassingly small crowds.


Indigenous Partners

For more than a year, the Catholic bishops of Canada have never spoken about current controversies without stating that they were acting in consultation with their “Indigenous partners.” 

The papal visit exposed that pious fiction. Canada’s bishops profess an eager desire to foster extensive, even exhaustive, reconciliation efforts with their Indigenous partners. That is not reciprocated.

While at the local level — highlighted by the papal visit to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton — good relations are ongoing and widespread, the national Indigenous politicians are manifestly not interested in reconciliation. The national chief, RoseAnne Archibald, protested loudly that she was not given a prominent role in the visit, even though she had refused even to go to Rome in the spring. Reconciliation is not on her political agenda.

Canada’s bishops will now have to decide whether they withdraw from engagement with political leaders to focus on pastoral healing. Pope Francis charted a path for them.