VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A meeting at the Vatican between Pope Francis and the Indigenous communities in Canada, originally scheduled for Friday through Sunday (Dec. 17-20), was postponed due to the pandemic with the promise that the pope might visit the country next year.
But the scandals tied to the Christian-run residential schools in Canada, as well as the lack of a formal apology by the Vatican to local Indigenous communities, make it “an open question,” according to Jesuits on the ground, whether Francis will be warmly welcomed when he does go to Canada.
Tensions between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples in the country have grown since last summer, when more than 200 buried bodies were discovered on the property of a school for Indigenous children in the city of Kamloops, in western Canada. Since then, many more bodies have been found in mostly Christian-run residential schools in the country.
In the late 1800s the Canadian government created residential schools, often run by Christian organizations, to integrate Indigenous children into the culture, religion and customs of Canadian society. Children were often forcibly taken from their families, leaving behind their cultural and linguistic heritage.
After the recent revelations, the relationship between the Catholic Church and Indigenous communities “could be described as one of suspicion and lack of trust, marked by the history of systemic abuse and intergenerational trauma suffered by Indigenous peoples,” said Jose Sanchez, the spokesperson for the Jesuit community in Canada, in an email to Religion News Service.
The reaction of Catholics in the country has “evolved from ignorance about the reality of systemic abuse, to horror, and now to coordinated action for reconciliation and justice,” Sanchez added.
Groups such as Catholics for Truth and Reconciliation, comprising roughly 2,000 Canadian Catholics, have attempted to bridge the gap by promoting awareness among the faithful on the reality of residential schools and through fundraising and concrete actions across local dioceses and online platforms.
While the problems at the Indigenous schools were widely known, recent developments “really punctuated how painful and tragic it was,” said the Rev. David McCallum, who works to promote restorative justice between the church and Indigenous peoples at LeMoyne College in Syracuse, New York.
“The situation in Canada, while more acutely painful, is also symptomatic of the same kind of pain that Indigenous people feel around the world,” making the church’s response even more poignant, said McCallum, who is also president of the Discerning Leadership Program, which provides church leaders with formation and coaching.
A delegation of Canadian bishops and groups representing Indigenous communities — the Assembly of First Nations, Métis National Council and Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami — announced Dec. 7 the “heartbreaking” decision to reschedule their meeting with Francis at the Vatican to 2022, due to the increased risks brought on by the omicron variant.
This is the second time the meeting was canceled due to the pandemic, as tensions between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples in Canada continue to grow. When Canadian bishops met with Francis at the Vatican last week, they discussed the postponed meeting and the possibility that the pope might visit Canada and issue an apology himself.
The meeting with Indigenous peoples might finally take place in the spring, said the president of the Canadian Bishops Conference, Bishop Raymond Poisson of Saint-Jérôme and of Mont-Laurier, Quebec, in an interview with Vatican media outlets Friday.
The Vatican announced in October that the pope was considering a visit to Canada, but no official date has been released. According to the bishop, a papal trip to the country would have a great impact on Indigenous communities in Canada, given the importance that the role of “chief” has in their culture.
“For them, the chief of the Catholic Church is the pope,” Poisson said. “For us, he is the great pastor of his people. So, the pope can be the brother bishop with the other bishops of Canada, uniting with them in the same apology or recognition of what has happened.”
Bishops in Canada issued an apology after their plenary meeting in September, where they expressed their “profound remorse and apologize unequivocally.” An apology by Francis, coupled with the meeting at the Vatican, would be “an important milestone in the Catholic Church’s commitment to listen, learn and become better partners in building the common good and the kingdom of God,” Sanchez said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created by the Canadian government to address the legacy of residential schools and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, asked in its 2015 final document that the pope visit Canada and issue an apology. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said during a news conference in June that he spoke directly to Pope Francis, asking him to apologize to Indigenous communities in the country.
According to Poisson, the bishops discussed the question of a papal apology during their meeting with Francis at the Vatican, but he said officials there were still deciding how and when it should be made.
“For that relationship to be restored it’s going to take some really powerful work by the church to not just apologize,” McCallum said. “The apology from Pope Francis would be a powerful gesture,” he added, “but I don’t think it’s going to be enough.”
A first practical step would be the creation of “a commission that studies the impacts of the church on native peoples, which avoids the defensive posture,” he said, alluding to the attitude by authorities to reduce past behaviors to the historical context at the time, “which does nothing to advance mutual understanding and healing.”