Indigenous delegates to get unprecedented papal access

Direct papal access scheduled during Dec. 17-20 visit to Rome

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Indigenous delegates to Rome will have at least three hours of direct, face-to-face conversation with Pope Francis spread over four days, topped off with their presence at an hour-long general audience.

Long-time Vatican observer Michael Higgins, principal of St. Mark’s College and president of Corpus Christi College, both at the University of British Columbia, is betting the Indigenous delegates will get even more time with the Pope than the official schedule allows.

“He tends to exceed the time limits allocated,” Higgins said in an e-mail. “He doesn’t disrupt the dynamic if he feels the presence of the Spirit.”

When U.S. President Joe Biden’s recent meeting with Pope Francis ran to 90 minutes it was “considered very extraordinary,” he said.

“Many heads of state visiting with him have short visits of 15 to 30 minutes,” noted Neil MacCarthy, who is managing communications for the visit on behalf of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops. “Allocating hour-long individual meetings with First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegates, as well as a final audience with all delegates, is a significant commitment.”

To maximize the time spent in direct conversation with residential school survivors and others, Indigenous delegations may present Pope Francis with dossiers of information before or after their meetings with him, MacCarthy said.

“We must remember that the December meetings will provide a foundation for the papal visit to Canada,” he said.

Though unconfirmed by the CCCB, Radio Canada’s Charles Le Bourgeois reports that CCCB vice president and Calgary Bishop William McGrattan, Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith and very likely Regina Archbishop Don Bolen will be representing the bishops on the trip. CCCB president Bishop Raymond Poisson is also expected to attend.

The Assembly of First Nations has revealed that its portion of the delegation will number 13 people, including former Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Chief Wilton Littlechild. Littlechild was the driving force behind Call to Action #58, one of 94 Calls to Action issued in 2015 when the TRC published its final report. Call to Action #58 asked Pope Francis to apologize on Canadian soil within one year of publication of the TRC final report.

In 2018, then CCCB president Bishop Lionel Gendron released a letter to the Indigenous people of Canada which claimed Pope Francis “could not personally respond” to Call to Action #58, even though “the Holy Father is aware of the findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” and takes them “seriously.”

Littlechild will be the official spokesperson for the AFN delegation meeting with Pope Francis between 10 and 11 a.m. Rome time Dec. 20.

Other members of the AFN delegation include spiritual advisor and Anishinaabe elder Fred Kelly, former AFN Grand Chief Phil Fontaine and Northwest Territories executive committee member Norman Yakeleya of the Dene people.

Current AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald has ruled out going to Rome with the delegation.

The CCCB is waiting until all details are confirmed before it will reveal the complete roster of delegates, which it says will number between 30 and 35 Indigenous representatives. The CCCB will shoulder the costs for the trip.

The Inuit delegation will be the first to meet with Pope Francis on Dec. 17, Pope Francis’ 85th birthday, between 11 a.m. and noon. Métis delegates will meet with the Holy Father the next day at 11 a.m.

Through seven days in Rome delegates will have a thorough experience of the Eternal City, including a visit to the Vatican Museum with particular attention paid to the Vatican’s collection of Indigenous art from around the world in the Anima Mundi collection. Opportunities to visit the Basilicas of St. John Lateran and St. Maria Maggiore in Rome and tour St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City have been arranged.

The delegation will also be received by the Canadian Embassy, hosted by Canada’s representative to the Holy See, Charges d’Affaires Paul Gibbard.

Fr. Tom Rosica, former Salt and Light Media CEO who in the past has acted as a Vatican spokesperson at synods and other events, said the Pope’s time commitment for the delegation meetings is remarkable.

“The fact that the Pope is granting that amount of time at that moment in December is extremely important. It’s not a small amount of time,” Rosica said.