Pope Francis agreed to visit Canada to assist in ongoing reconciliation efforts with indigenous peoples following shocking revelations of the role of the Catholic Church in the abuse and death of thousands of native children, the Vatican said Wednesday.
In a brief statement, the Holy See press office said that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Pope to make an apostolic trip to Canada “also in the context of the long pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples.” The statement did not mention why the reconciliation process was needed.
In return, Francisco “has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be set in due course,” the statement said.
The pilgrimage could be the occasion for a papal apology that has been demanded by many in Canada.
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Francis had already agreed to meet indigenous survivors from Canada’s notorious residential schools in December amid papal apologies for the role of the Catholic Church. At the time, the bishops’ conference said the pontiff had invited delegations to the Vatican and would meet separately with three groups – First Nations, Metis and Inuit – during his Dec. 17-20 visit. The Pope will then preside over a final audience with the three groups on December 20.
On Wednesday, Toronto Cardinal Thomas Collins said the December meetings will help lay the groundwork for the Canadian pilgrimage. “Over the course of several days, through authentic listening and dialogue, Pope Francis will listen directly to those who have suffered,” the cardinal said in a statement.
Collins said his country’s bishops had apologized earlier this year as they “acknowledged with regret the ongoing and historical trauma and the legacy of suffering and challenges faced by indigenous peoples that continue to this day.”
The cardinal added that he was praying that the Pope’s visit would allow healing and dialogue to continue “through authentic encounters of compassion, understanding and reconciliation.”
The lingering shame of residential schools
Earlier this year, researchers in Canada using ground penetrating radar reported finding hundreds of unmarked graves at the sites of two residential schools for indigenous children. The discoveries – more than 600 graves in one school, 215 bodies in another – revived calls, including from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for the Pope to formally apologize.
From the 19th century through 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 from disease and other causes; others never returned to their families.
Almost three-quarters of the 130 residential schools were run by Roman Catholic missionary congregations. Others were led by the Presbyterian, Anglican and United Church of Canada, which today is the largest Protestant denomination in the country. The residential school system continued under the control of the federal government until the 1990s.
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The Canadian government formally apologized for the politics and the abuses in 2008. Additionally, the Presbyterian, Anglican and United Churches have apologized for their role in the abuse.
In response to the Vatican’s announcement on Wednesday, Canadian Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said he expected from the pontiff “full recognition of the harm done to indigenous peoples.”
“In the grand scheme of what we call reconciliation for indigenous peoples, that full recognition is something that has long been expected from the Holy Father himself,” Miller said.
The newly elected head of the Canadian bishops’ conference, Bishop Raymond Poisson, expressed his hope that the Pope’s visit to Canada “will be a significant milestone on the road to reconciliation and healing.”
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