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Raymond J. de Souza: Pope Francis’ visit to Canada will be no easy feat, but will be of great importance

Since Pope Paul VI started the practice of foreign papal trips, which were subsequently turbo-charged by Pope John Paul II, it is often thought that hosting the pope is routine. Not so

Pope Francis

That Pope Francis will visit Canada to foster reconciliation with Indigenous peoples is bigger news than many think, and how it will be done is more complicated than many think.

Since Pope Paul VI started the practice of foreign papal trips, which were subsequently turbo-charged by Pope John Paul II, it is often thought that hosting the pope is routine. Not so.

Outside of Latin America, and aside from major Christian gatherings like World Youth Day, Pope Francis simply does not visit the world’s richest countries. In Europe, he has visited Romania and Bulgaria, but not Germany or Spain. He has not visited his native Argentina.

He only visited the United States because of the Catholic World Meeting of Families. He prefers the “peripheries,” as he calls them, to the major centres. He likes to go to countries that have never had a papal visit before.

So when, in 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) called for Pope Francis to appear in Canada within the year to offer an apology related to residential schools, it was not a likely proposition.

The issue wasn’t the apology. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the comprehensive apology made by the Oblate religious order, which ran most of the residential schools assigned by the federal government to the Catholic Church, including the one in Kamloops, B.C.

In the intervening years, there have been dozens of subsequent apologies from various Catholic entities. In 2009, a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders met with Pope Benedict XVI in what was then widely recognized by mainstream, Indigenous and Catholic media as the apology from the Catholic Church for residential schools.

Pope Francis, for his part, offered his own apology for abuses against Indigenous peoples when he was in Bolivia in 2015, not long before the TRC’s final report was issued.

In 2017, Pope Francis said that he had no plans to visit Canada, so he would not be able to “personally respond” to the TRC. Instead, a new series of meetings began between Catholic bishops and Indigenous leaders to repeat the papal encounter that had taken place with Benedict XVI in 2009. That Vatican meeting was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but was delayed by the pandemic. It will take place this December instead.

Meanwhile, residential schools returned to public prominence this past summer. The intensity of feeling against the Catholic Church was manifested, in part, by a string of arsons and vandalism of Catholic churches, which were roundly condemned by Indigenous leaders. Reconciliation clearly required a reset.

Thus the Canadian bishops asked Pope Francis to consider a visit for the express purpose of Indigenous reconciliation. That he accepted was not a surprise, even though the announcement was expected by many observers to come in December at the Vatican summit.

Pope Francis is moved by the suffering and the afflicted. He visited the Philippines in large part to comfort those devastated by a typhoon; he visited the tiny island of Lesbos in Greece for a few hours simply to comfort the refugees massed there awaiting asylum. A broad-ranging pastoral visit to Canada would likely get a “no”; a targeted visit to heal the wounds of residential schools clearly got a “yes.”

The Lesbos visit might prove something of a model for the upcoming Canadian trip. Papal visits are expensive. The last one to Canada in 2002 ran a massive deficit in the millions of dollars.

In September, the Canadian bishops announced a five-year, $30-million campaign to raise money for Indigenous reconciliation. A previous undertaking in 2005, part of the residential schools settlement, to raise $30 million had failed. But not for lack of trying. A leading fundraising consultant was hired at the cost of $2 million, the campaign was chaired by Phil Fontaine, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and the campaign committee included Mary Simon, now Governor General of Canada.

It turned out that no one was interested. The corporate donors and major philanthropists that campaigns require to get started took a pass. A collection in the pews netted only a few hundred thousand. The general view appeared to be that the $4 billion in federal monies in the residential schools settlement rendered an additional $30 million from Catholic sources superfluous.

That view has likely changed, and the fundraising will probably go better this time around. However, the Catholic Church could hardly spend significant money for a papal visit before its renewed fundraising campaign gets started.

How, then, to do both? One solution would be for the federal government to pay for the papal visit, as it paid for the Indigenous leaders to travel to Rome to meet Benedict in 2009. Even then, it would have to be a more focused visit — not a broad visit to all of Canada, with all the attendant costs.

My suggestion is that Pope Francis fly directly to Fort Simpson, N.W.T., a tiny Indigenous village some 500 kilometres west of Yellowknife. St. John Paul II had planned to meet Indigenous people there in 1984. Fog prevented him from landing, but he promised he would return.

He did so in 1987, coming to Canada for the sole purpose of meeting the Indigenous community. It was the only one of his more than 100 foreign trips undertaken to meet a single community. Fort Simpson thus is symbolic of promises kept and respect offered, rather than promises broken and dignity denied.

John Paul’s words at Fort Simpson 35 years ago, affirming the rights of Indigenous peoples, provide a foundation for what Pope Francis will say on his visit. The northern visit would put Indigenous peoples at the centre, rather than government officials and other influential power brokers.

The TRC insisted on the importance of a papal encounter, not in Rome, but on land dear to Indigenous-Canadians. Fort Simpson is exactly that.

National Post

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  1. Phil Fontaine, then-leader of the Assembly of the First Nations, attends Pope Benedict's weekly general audience in Saint Peter's Square in Vatican City, in 2009.

    Raymond J. de Souza: Historically inaccurate to suggest Catholic Church hasn't apologized for residential schools

  2. Graffitti and damage is shown at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Calgary on Thursday, July 1, 2021. Polce say a number of churches were vandalized overnight in Calgary.

    Raymond J. de Souza: Rash of Catholic church burnings and vandalism isn't 'sad,' it's sacrilege