Renewal in Rome

Assembly of First Nations representatives dance in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican March 31, 2022. (CNS photo by Paul Haring)

Long-awaited summit aims to heal relations with Church

By The Catholic Register staff

[Vatican City – Canadian Catholic News] – British, American, Italian and a planeload of Canadian journalists have produced global headlines from the Indigenous delegations meeting with Pope Francis in Rome this week.

While news crews and reporters jostled to squeeze reports of scandal and conflict from the unprecedented audiences between the Pontiff and those who bear legacies of Canada’s historic wrongs to its Indigenous members, however, The Catholic Register’s Michael Swan has reported on hard truths being delivered with prayer and deep respect by the delegates.

Recognition of the Pope’s holy office and the bearing of hand-crafted beaded moccasins did not prevent the Inuit delegation, for example, from requesting from Pope Francis aid in returning a French priest to Canada to answer abuse allegations (RCMP, on March 29, laid charges against Johannes Rivoire).

The president of the Métis National Council took pains to emphasize that the harm done by residential schools is no mere matter of history, and that action, not apologetic words, is vital.

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen characterized the closed-door one-hour meeting between nine Métis elders and residential school survivors and the Holy Father as “eloquent” but direct.

“A lot of hard truths were spoken, but they were spoken in a very gracious, poignant and eloquent way,” Bolen told dozens of journalists gathered at a Rome hotel and listening in on a live feed.

For Bishop Raymond Poisson, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), the exchanges were “heart-to-heart” and filled with mutual affection.

“I will take these reflections with me in my prayer and also in my meditation,” Poisson said, speaking to reporters in both French and English.

For Métis historian Mitchell Case, they were cause for tears – and hope.

Recalling the stories Métis survivors told Francis in the first of three planned encounters between the Pope and Indigenous delegations, Case spoke of how the meetings and the coverage they are generating from Canadian and global press will validate Métis identity for the next generation. That will include his own nieces and nephews who are beginning to learn the Michif language that was suppressed at residential schools in their grandparents’ generation.

“Today is the beginning of something,” Case said, later adding, “We’re going to work to make the world better for those little kids.”

Métis, who were excluded from the 2006 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement and from the subsequent Truth and Reconciliation Commission proceedings, consider the meeting with Pope Francis particularly significant, Case said.

“This is the first time any Métis survivors have been invited to say anything,” he said.

The Métis want to see reconciliation carried into the future at the level of individual Catholics and parishes.

“You can bet you will see me holding my hand out and going to the churches and asking how we can go forward together in a good way,” said Pixie Wells, interim president of the Fraser Valley Metis Association.

Reconciliation is one thing. Remembrance is also essential, Wells said.

She urged Canadians to plant Forget-Me-Nots in their gardens this spring, the flower also known as the Métis Rose, as a sign of ongoing reconciliation.

“Reconciliation did not begin with the meeting today with Pope Francis and it did not finish today,” said Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron.

Caron took pains to emphasize the harm done by residential schools is incarnational.

“We know that inter-generational trauma is embedded in our DNA,” she said. “The science has been done. We’re passing this trauma on to our children. … We need action. An apology is just words.”

The most important thing that can happen out of the meetings here in Rome and a subsequent visit to Canada from Pope Francis is a 180-degree turn away from the message of Catholic-run residential schools, said Caron.

“Our children came home (from Catholic-run schools, including day schools) hating who they are,” she said. Their message today is, “We are still here. … We love our culture. We love our language.”

The Inuit delegation, meanwhile, treated the meeting as a diplomatic opportunity. It came bearing gifts such as a sealskin stole, a rosary case also made of sealskin and soapstone carvings. The Pope gave small gifts to the delegates in return. But the exchange concluded with an insistence on justice.

After being greeted individually at the door of the papal library by Pope Francis, Inuit delegates proceeded to light the qulliq they had brought with them — a soapstone lantern that burns blubber, and a symbol of warmth and life in Inuit culture.

“It caused a bit of a concern with Vatican officials,” recalled Calgary Bishop William McGrattan.

After assurances and explanations, the qulliq remained lit throughout the hour that Francis dedicated to hearing Inuit survivors speak of their experiences in residential schools.

“We learned to be a white person, which we cannot be,” explained Kuujjuaq elder and health care worker Martha Greig.

Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed addressed the global significance of the meeting.

“We appreciate that this story is being covered globally,” Obed said. “This is an ongoing relationship between a global power in this particular place and 51 particular (Inuit) communities.”

Emphasising the diplomatic nature of the meeting, Obed brought a request that the Pope personally intervene in the case of Rivoire, a former priest living in France and out of the reach of Canadian justice. Rivoire is alleged to have sexually abused a long list of Inuit children in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, before fleeing to France, which does not extradite its citizens to Canada.

Obed asked that Pope Francis speak to Rivoire and order him to return to Canada or use his influence with the French government to have him sent back.

Rivoire is not the only case and not all the abuser priests have died, Obed said.

Obed called it a “heartbreaking reality” that “those who should have been brought to justice have not.”

McGrattan said the Church wants to be helpful in bringing abusers to justice.

“The Church needs to face this in a forthright manner,” he said. “We need to be an instrument to help bring these cases to justice.”

Not all Inuit are interested in whether Pope Francis apologizes for residential schools or not and many are unmoved by the meetings in Rome, while it matters a lot to others, said Obed. He also acknowledged many Inuit are devoted Catholics.

“There are many who have a very strong faith and are a positive influence in their communities,” he said. “There’s a complexity around this conversation and a complexity around faith.”

Witnessing the encounter gave Winnipeg Archbishop Richard Gagnon the sense of being present for an “historical moment.”

“It was a great privilege to be part of that,” he said.

Caron said that with the meetings having taken place in Rome, and Francis so clearly engaged in listening, she hopes Canadians at home will do the same. The reconciliation ball, she said, is now in Canada’s court.


Follow Michael Swan’s daily reports at