Pope Francis Comes to Canada: A Papal Pilgrimage of Penance
Indigenous representatives and Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton discuss the legacy of Canada’s residential-school system and their hopes regarding the visit of Pope Francis.
EDMONTON, Alberta — “The favorite word they had for us back in school was les sauvages, or savages,” Elder Fernie Marty told me, remembering his time at a Canadian residential school.
Together, we’re standing in a small prayer room in the parish house connected to Sacred Heart Church in downtown Edmonton. This is a majority-Indigenous parish, and in this prayer room, Elder Marty showed me how the Indigenous community has incorporated symbols and icons from their culture into their Catholic faith. He pointed toward the corner of the room where a statue of the Virgin Mary stood, draped in a colorful shawl.
“Our women always wore a sash like this, so we put some Native colors on Mary,” he said.
“That’s how we saw her, the Mother of us all.”
Elder Marty then turned his attention to a beautiful wooden altar at the top of the room. Under it, the wood is carved to look like strong roots of a tree. Elder Marty pointed to it with a smile. “The roots of our people are strong,” he said.
And he’s right. The Indigenous population of Canada has survived and withstood oppression and mistreatment throughout the decades. This came in many shapes and forms, but most notable was the treatment many of them experienced in Canada’s residential schooling system, which was operated by Canadian churches.
“They saw us as paganistic in our ways of believing. We were forbidden from practicing our culture, our ways of worship, even speaking our language,” he said. “I would go home to my mother and tell her what they were doing, and she would say to me, ‘Pray for them, Fernie; they don’t know what they are doing.’”
Addressing the issue of how Indigenous were treated in state-owned, church-run residential schools was to be the central focus of Pope Francis’ agenda during his Canada visit July 24-29. Indeed, this “penitential pilgrimage,” as the Holy Father has characterized it, for the harms suffered by Indigenous individuals and communities at the schools, will command the attention of people watching this papal trip, not just in Canada, but all over the world.
It is the first papal visit to Canada in 20 years. The last pope to touch down on Canadian soil was Pope St. John Paul II in 2002 for World Youth Day in Toronto. That was his third visit, and on each occasion, he met with Indigenous communities. In his speeches, he noted that they were often the victims of prejudice and “among the poorest and most marginalized in society.”
Two decades later, the Indigenous communities in Canada still are statistically worse off than other Canadians, suffering from poorer health, lower incomes and lack of education. And during this period, stories have continued to emerge of how the Indigenous were mistreated while attending Canadian residential schools. These facilities were owned by the state but operated by the Catholic Church and other religious denominations, in line with policies mandated by Canada’s federal government.
Many Indigenous are now calling themselves survivors of these schools, with heart-wrenching stories of suffering physical and sexual abuse there.
Following the widespread publicization in 2021 of untended gravesites of children who had died at the schools during the decades they operated in the 19th and 20th centuries, these stories generated renewed outrage in Canada — including demands by many Indigenous leaders and politicians for an apology from Pope Francis, on behalf of the Catholic Church, for the harms inflicted by the schools on their students. The Holy Father did so earlier this year, when a group of Indigenous visited the Vatican in Rome, as did Pope Benedict XVI to another Indigenous delegation in 2009, but Francis is expected to augment this further while on Canadian soil.
In addition to visiting Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton, the largest Indigenous Catholic parish in Canada, the Pope is also scheduled to travel an hour south to the rural farming community of Maskwacis.
He will visit the Church of Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows, which was built on the grounds of a former residential school.
There, I met with a woman who is an active parish member and former resident of the school. In a soft and somber voice, Karen Wildcat told me that while she never experienced anything bad on the girls’ side of the school and has only happy memories, she said her two younger brothers had a different experience on the other side of the wall. They both became alcoholics after leaving the residential school. She never got to ask them what happened, as they both passed away from alcoholism.
“I have a lot of sadness and anger because I don’t know how their life was in there,” she said. “But I’ve learned to surrender everything to the Lord and let him deal with it.” We talked more about reconciliation and what the visit of the Pope will mean for her community.
“I’m hoping for healing. My concern is that the hurt and anger is going to keep on being passed on to our children and future generations. Nothing good will come of this. My hope is that we can accept the apology and move on,” she said.
When announcing the itinerary for this papal trip, the Vatican noted that the schedule would be less busy than other papal trips of this nature, due to the Pope’s health issues and reduced mobility.
The trip schedule had three main stops across the vast landmass that is Canada: first Edmonton in the west, then Quebec City in the east, for the Pope to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and, finally, the remote Baffin Island community of Iqaluit, in the far north, with a population of 7,500 people.
Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton coordinated the entire trip on a national level. We sat down for a pre-trip television interview for EWTN News InDepth at his office in Edmonton, and he spoke about his joy of hearing the trip was confirmed after it had previously been postponed a number of times.
“I felt astonished. This is a Pope that, yes, is grappling with some limitations, and I’m presuming there were many people who were encouraging him to stay, get better, and rest. But, obviously, he said, ‘No, I want to be there.’ He had indicated to the Indigenous delegation who had been in Rome earlier this year, ‘I want to come, and I want to be with you on your land.’ So, clearly, he was taking his promise seriously,” the archbishop said.
We spoke about the scandals that have come from the residential schools, something Archbishop Smith has been instrumental in addressing head-on. I asked him what effect they have had on the Church in Canada.
He replied with a sigh, “The word that first jumps to mind is heartbroken. Yes, shock, rage — anger that anybody in the Church, anybody who would serve another in the name of Christ, would do something as horrible as this just leaves everybody flabbergasted and, yes, heartbroken.”
He then stressed the importance of addressing the issue and never shying away from what has happened: “This is not something we could ever run from or would ever want to run from. We have to think, ‘What can we do to the best of our ability to make sure these things just do not happen again?’”
Our discussion led to the broader issue of mission and how these schools were run by missionary orders under the direction of the Canadian government. The archbishop firmly pointed out that it wasn’t all bad and that the stories of abuse and mistreatment made up the actions of a minority, not of the majority, of the Catholics who served in the schools.
“I think what we have to look at more broadly is the missionary dimension,” he said. “The Church will always go anywhere in the world to bring the Gospel. We must do that, and we must do it joyfully and unapologetically.”
Less Negative Experiences
“And it must be said that, because of the mission, many good things were done,” the archbishop added. “The early missionaries that came here to Western Canada, for example, immersed themselves in the lives of the Indigenous peoples. They understood the beauty of the culture; they understood the importance of linguistic preservation. They created dictionaries. So a lot of good things took place. And we can’t forget that! We can’t allow it either, though, to whitewash some mistakes that were made.”
This is something I came across when meeting and interviewing different Indigenous members of the community who are also practicing Catholics — a sort of inner struggle when trying to comprehend the horror of the stories that have hit the media when then comparing those to their own positive experiences and fond memories of their time in residential schools.
One such Indigenous man is Elder Lawrence. We sat down in his home outside of Edmonton on his 86th birthday. He proudly showed me a picture of him, as a much younger man, meeting Pope John Paul II at the Vatican in 1982. Lawrence was representing his Indigenous community, and in the picture, he is wearing his full First Nations tribal clothing, including massive headgear filled with colorful feathers. His hand is outstretched, as he shakes hands with a smiling Pope John Paul II.
Elder Lawrence spent 10 years as a boarder in a residential school. “I have a hard time grasping what they’re talking about because in 10 years I never really experienced anything that bad. Maybe a slap on the head or the ears, but that was it.”
I asked him about the significance of the Pope’s apology, and he didn’t seem too interested in it. “The way I see it, those people who mistreated us, and I’ll just say us, are all gone. They are the ones who should be apologizing to us.”
This is similar to what Elder Marty, back at Sacred Heart Church, expressed to me. “I think it’s the government who should apologize, because they dictated to the Church what to do. Assimilation was their method that they wanted to be done to the Indigenous people.”
‘A Tremendous Gift’
Regardless of who carries the burden of the blame, what is clear is that there is still so much pain and suffering in the aftermath of how some people were treated in these residential schools. And the Church, along with the Canadian government, will have to continue to take a share of responsibility for that.
But the members of the Indigenous communities that I met, and members of the Church, were hoping this visit of Pope Francis, and expected apology, will help draw a line in the sand and help those who need it to finally heal.
Elder Marty’s face lit up when he thought of the upcoming visit of Pope Francis to his parish. “For me, it will be an honor to meet him and even just to shake his hand. That, to me, will be a tremendous gift for my own healing journey to continue on. That’s how I see it.”
- papal trips
- indigenous peoples
- Canadian residential schools
- colm flynn
- pope francis