‘Only suitable’: Calgary indigenous priest in charge of liturgy for Pope’s visit

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When Vatican officials were looking for someone in Canada to act as a planning liaison for the program during the pope’s visit later this month, they had specific criteria.

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Ideally, the person would have indigenous heritage, have a connection to the residential school system, and speak Italian.

This left them with only one name: Cristino Bouvette.

The 36-year-old Roman Catholic priest from Calgary is Italian on his mother’s side and Cree and Métis on his father’s side. His kokum, or his grandmother, was a residential school survivor.

“I have both worlds that have come together,” Bouvette said in an interview while in Edmonton.

“This new role is something that I think is especially suitable for me. If in God’s providence he has set things up for me to be a part of, I’m honored to do so.”

Bouvette has been named national liturgical director for Pope Francis’ first visit to Canada. The theme of the trip is “Walking Together,” and from July 24-29, the pope is scheduled to meet with indigenous groups and residential school survivors at stops in and around Edmonton, Quebec City and Iqaluit.

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The position requires Bouvette to work with local organizers and the Vatican liturgy office to help ensure that any ceremonies that take place during the visit reflect the land in which they reside and the Catholic Church.

Bouvette was approached earlier this year when talks began about Pope Francis’ visit to Canada.

“I knew immediately that I didn’t want to do it,” he recalled. “It is very overwhelming. He was sure it was going to be very complicated. I was just afraid of doing something wrong or making a mistake.”

Being an indigenous priest comes with a level of pressure, he said. It’s a role he happily accepts, but one that fills him with fear as he thinks about fostering healing and reconciliation between his own people and the church that inflicted pain on them.

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An estimated 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools for a century, with the Roman Catholic Church running about 60 percent of the schools.

“When I feel like a lot of people are counting on me to say or do the right thing at the right time, that’s the heaviest burden.”

Thoughts of his kokum came to mind, he said.

When Amelia Mae Bouvette was seven years old, she was forced to leave her family on the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in east-central Alberta to attend the Edmonton Residential School, which was operated by the United Church.

Despite this, he maintained a deep connection to his Christian faith. He grew up a member of the United Church and members of his family were ordained ministers.

Decades later, when the time came for Cristino Bouvette to tell his grandmother that he had decided to become a priest, she told him that she had met good nuns and priests in her life and hoped that he would be one of them.

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He died in 2019, a month before his 100th birthday.

When Bouvette thinks of what her kokum would say about her role in the Pope’s visit to Canada, words do not come to mind.

“I can see the expression on his face and feel his hand in mine,” he said. “She would be a refuge for me knowing that no matter what happened and no matter what I did or how I did it, she would be there for me. So that brings a lot of comfort.”

The pope is expected to expand on an apology for the church’s role in residential schools, which he delivered to indigenous delegates earlier this year at the Vatican.

The past few months have been a whirlwind of meetings, Bouvette said.

He has been in contact with indigenous representatives from each area the pontiff will visit to hear what they hope to see from the show. Vatican officials have also toured the planned sites.

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“It is surreal to be able to be, in Italian, explaining to some monsignors what the stain is or why praying in the four directions is important,” he said. “All these things are mixing into one.”

Details about what the ceremonies will look like are under wraps, but Bouvette said it has been important to develop a program that Pope Francis can meaningfully participate in while honoring indigenous traditions and customs.

“I hope that people who are looking for something from this get what they need and that if there are people who didn’t think they needed this or actively don’t, that at least it doesn’t cause them any disturbance or any harm.”

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