WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
Pope Francis has agreed to visit Canada to help ongoing efforts at reconciliation with Indigenous people following shocking revelations of the Catholic Church’s role in the abuse and deaths of thousands of native children, the Vatican said on Wednesday.
In a brief statement, the Vatican said the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has invited the Pope to make an apostolic journey to Canada “also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”
The Vatican says Francis has indicated his “willingness” to visit Canada at a date to be determined. Given the time usually required to organize an overseas papal visit, it appeared unlikely such a pilgrimage could happen this year.
“The Bishops of Canada have been engaged in meaningful discussions with Indigenous Peoples, especially those affected by Residential Schools who have shared stories about the suffering and challenges that they continue to experience,” said Rev. Raymond Poisson, CCCB president.
“We pray that Pope Francis’ visit to Canada will be a significant milestone in the journey toward reconciliation and healing.”
A few months ago, Francis agreed to meet in December with Indigenous survivors of Canada’s notorious residential schools amid calls for a papal apology for the Catholic Church’s role. At that time, the bishops conference said the pontiff had invited the delegations to the Vatican and would meet separately with three groups — First Nations, Métis and Inuit — during their Dec. 17-20 visit. The Pope will then preside over a final audience with all three groups Dec. 20, according to the bishops group.
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It wasn’t immediately clear if that Vatican meeting would go forward or if a papal pilgrimage might preclude it.
From the 19th century until the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend state-funded Christian boarding schools in a campaign to assimilate them into Canadian society. Thousands of children died there of disease and other causes; others never returned to their families.
Nearly three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations, with others operated by the Presbyterian, Anglican and the United Church of Canada.
Trudeau disappointed with slow response
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in response to a question last week while visiting Tk’emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation in B.C., pointed out that those three churches had signed on to the landmark 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
“We have seen, unfortunately, from the Catholic Church, a resistance to taking on responsibility, either financial or moral, for its role in residential schools,” Trudeau said.
“I think the millions of Catholics like me across this country expect the church to step up and fulfil its moral responsibilities, its legal and economic responsibilities, its historic responsibilities, but also to practise what it quite literally preaches,” he added.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said last month that they would give $30 million to help support survivors of the residential school system.
The church committed in 2005 to pay $29 million in cash under the 2005 agreement, but documents recently obtained by CBC News showed much of the money was spent on lawyers, administration, a private fundraising company and unapproved loans.
Apology doesn’t end the process: Fontaine
Phil Fontaine, the former grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations and Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, had been selected as a delegate to meet with Francis at the planned meeting at the Vatican.
“We’re working toward something quite substantial in our meeting with the Holy Father, and that has to include, not just the apology — which is significant — but what comes after the apology,” he told CBC Manitoba last week. “That is, in my view, where important steps have to be taken both from the Catholic Church and their various entities in Canada and our people.”
A papal apology was one of 94 recommendations from Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but the Canadian bishops conference said in 2018 that the Pope could not personally apologize for the residential schools.
Francis acknowledged sorrows and sufferings
Pope Benedict XVI, who retired in 2013, met with some former students and victims in 2009 and told them of his “personal anguish” over their suffering. But he offered no apology.
The issue came to the fore in the spring, when investigators in Canada using ground-penetrating radar reported finding hundreds of potential burial sites at two residential schools for Indigenous children. The discoveries revived calls for the Pope to make a formal apology.
Pope Francis addressed the discoveries of an estimated 200 potential burial sites on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School on June 6. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc originally reported its radar survey detected 215 potential burial sites but later revised that down to 200.
“I follow with sorrow the news that arrives from Canada about the upsetting discovery of the remains of 215 children,” Francis said. “I join with the Catholic church in Canada in expressing closeness to the Canadian people traumatized by the shocking news. This sad discovery increases the awareness of the sorrows and sufferings of the past.”
“May the political and religious authorities continue to collaborate with determination to shed light on this sad affair and to commit to a path of healing,” Francis added.
The Argentine pope has apologized for the sins and crimes committed by the Catholic Church against Indigenous peoples during the colonial era conquest of the Americas. He begged forgiveness during a 2015 visit to Bolivia and in the presence of Indigenous groups.
Francis, who underwent bowel surgery early in the summer, has resumed regular activities, with a meeting with President Joe Biden on tap for Friday.
A Vatican source told Reuters earlier this week that Francis is set to travel Cyprus and Greece, including the Greek island of Lesbos to meet migrants, from Dec. 2-6.
Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential school and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.