Papal visit one year later: path to reconciliation unfolding

Indigenous dancers participate in the program as Pope Francis met with First Nations, Métis and Inuit communities at Maskwacis, Alberta, on July 25, 2022. (CNS photo by Paul Haring)

One year since historic papal visit, positive signs abound

By Quinton Amundson, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Wolastoqey Indigenous elder Graydon Nicholas sensed promising potential in Pope Francis’ planned penitential pilgrimage to Canada from July 24-30, 2022, when he heard the pontiff’s first apology for historical residential school abuses against Indigenous peoples just over three months before the Pope set foot in Canada.

A “crucial” excerpt from the April 1 papal address at the Vatican was particularly striking for Nicholas, chancellor of St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., and former lieutenant governor of New Brunswick.

It read: “I also feel shame. I have said this to you and now I say it again. I feel shame — sorrow and shame — for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Those words, Nicholas said, “set the tone of his visit to Canada.” Pope Francis didn’t disappoint when he delivered his apology on behalf of the Church on Canadian soil July 25. Nicholas noted that Pope Francis remained steadfast with his sentiment that these institutions were a “disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ” when he delivered his apology in Maskwacis, Alta., home to the Ermineskin Cree Nation, Samson Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe and the Montana First Nation.

Ultimately, though, the impact of the Pope’s penitential pilgrimage cannot be measured by what occurred during his historic six-day sojourn, but rather what would occur in the days, months and years afterward.

Indeed, the Canadian Catholic Church has taken many steps forward on the path to reconciliation in the 12 months since the papal visit, dubbed a “penitential pilgrimage.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has published “That We May Walk Together,” four pastoral letters on reconciliation, one each to First Nations, Inuit, and Métis communities and one to the “People of God.” These emerged from several months of encounters with Indigenous people through “Listening Circles” at the diocesan and regional level, as well as through the Indigenous delegation that travelled to the Vatican before the Pope’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada.

The bishops’ conference has also established the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund (IRF) to accept donations from 73 Catholic dioceses and eparchies across the country in fulfillment of its $30 million pledge over 5 years. So far, the IRF has raised over one-third of the initial pledge ($11,264,838) and is on track to meet its goal.

In March 2023, the Vatican’s Dicastery for Culture and Education and the Dicastery for the Service of Integral Human Development published a Joint Note on the concept of the “Doctrine of Discovery.” The Joint Note, which the CCCB welcomed in its own statement,  repudiated concepts that failed to recognize the rights of Indigenous people and expressing support for UNDRIP, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

And last month, the bishops’ Permanent Council issued guidelines to help dioceses develop policies on Indigenous-related records they hold.

Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen said many Indigenous people have said they are heartened with the efforts of reconciliation made since Pope Francis departed Canada one year ago.

“Those First Nation communities who we work with most closely, and with who we have projects underway through the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund, are grateful and encouraged by signs of a new way of walking together,” said Bolen. “I know when we supported a culture camp last summer, which I attended and participated in a sweat lodge ceremony, our presence and support was deeply appreciated.”

Bolen said there are a “diversity of responses” in what needs to happen next in this new kinship between Indigenous peoples and the Canadian Catholic community. The common sentiment is “we are at the beginning, still, of a long journey of healing relationships with society as a whole. The Church is a part of that. We have taken important steps through the truth and reconciliation process, and the Church through the papal visit and the statement about the Doctrine of Discovery.”

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith noted that it is “important to underscore that since the papal visit, the unfolding of this journey together — this walking together on the path of healing and reconciliation — unfolds locally. Reconciliation happens one relationship at a time, and relationships are formed and developed at a local level.”

Nicholas, a member of the board of directors for the Indigenous Reconciliation Fund established by the Canadian Catholic Bishops, is encouraged that more than $11 million has been raised to date. The signs are encouraging that the fund will end up being substantially larger than the original $30-million five-year goal.

He said close to 50 projects have been approved for IRF funding. They are disbursed to support Indigenous communities in the areas of language and cultural revitalization, healing and reconciliation for communities and families, community building and education, and dialogues to promote Indigenous spirituality and culture.
As a next step for Catholic parishes, Nicholas would like to see parishes more actively engage with the “That We May Walk Together” pastoral letters .

“In our diocese and particular parish, not a lot has been done in this particular area,” said Nicholas. “Perhaps something will be done in the fall, as not a lot gets done at Catholic centres during the summer,” he added with a chuckle. “We will probably get together with other Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples to study these documents and figure out what we can learn. The Pope’s theme is walking together. Indigenous people can’t walk alone, and non-Indigenous peoples can’t walk alone. Coming together to review these documents could make a big, big difference in Canada.”

Looking back, bishops’ conference president Bishop Raymond Poisson remarked on the papal trip’s “momentousness” in a statement July 26. He said the Pope’s efforts “represented, and still represent a living expression of mutual effort — the Holy Father with the Church in Canada — to ‘walk together’ and to open up new horizons of hope within our communities.”

Nicholas said Pope Francis laid the pathway towards reconciliation during his homily at the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage site in Alberta on July 26, and it is up to Canadians from coast to coast to pick up the mantle. The words spoken that day by Pope Francis is what Nicholas defines as “the nutshell and a very, very important quote”:

“When looking at the Indigenous peoples and thinking of their history and the pain that they endured, what do I do for Indigenous peoples? Do I merely listen with curiosity, horrified by what happened in the past, or do I do something concrete for them? Do I pray, meet, read, support them, and let myself be touched by their stories?”