Papal Visit an Important Moment for Canadian Church, July 24, 2022

The arrival of Pope Francis in Edmonton on July 24, 2022 will represent an extremely important moment in the history of the Catholic Church in Canada. Not only are papal visits rare – this is only the fourth time a pontiff has come to Canada, with St. John Paul II having travelled here three times—but the week-long visit will be an opportunity for all of us to witness on Canadian soil the importance of listening and responding with compassion and action to the suffering in our world. In coming to Canada and meeting with Indigenous communities, Pope Francis will offer us a vital example of living our faith.

The trip comes in response to the ongoing pain experienced in Indigenous communities due to the history of residential schools in Canada. The Catholic Church ran approximately 60% of these schools, places which created a legacy of sexual and physical abuse and emotional trauma for many.

While the issue dates back generations, tensions between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples were brought to the forefront with the release of the federal government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report in 2015. The TRC had a mandate to reveal the truth of what had happened in residential schools, listening to survivors, their families and their communities.

The resulting report included 94 Calls to Action for all levels of government. Call to Action #58 expressly asked that the Pope issue an apology to survivors for the Church’s role in residential schools. The call also asked that the apology come on Canadian soil.

The matter became more pressing in 2021, with the First Nation of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc’s discovery of more than 200 unmarked, previously undocumented graves at Kamloops Residential School, once Canada’s largest. As the year progressed, more discoveries of hundreds more of what are believed to be children’s unmarked graves were made at various Canadian locations, shocking Canadians and making headlines around the world.

After meeting with Indigenous delegates who travelled to the Vatican this past Spring, Pope Francis said their testimony made him feel “indignation and shame.” He then promised to come to Canada.

With his schedule for the Canadian visit now confirmed, we look forward with hope to this papal visit. We have a long road ahead of us as a Church to begin to respond in productive ways to the tragic consequences of so many residential school experiences. As much as we need to try to understand what happened in many of these schools, we also need to acknowledge that harm was done and that some members of our Church engaged in sinful behaviour.

The result was that children suffered and died as a result. Their families and communities continue to suffer the intergenerational trauma. The legacy of the unmarked graves serves as a constant reminder that, institutionally, we denied the dignity and humanity of some of the youngest among us, a response that absolutely contradicts everything we say we believe. We need to begin to make amends that are based respectfully on the wishes of our Indigenous communities.

And we focus on the importance of the term Truth and Reconciliation. The two words happen to be central to our faith, with truth a synonym for Resurrection, and Reconciliation a sacrament. In many ways this visit will be sacramental in nature, for we seek God’s grace and forgiveness as we focus on the realities of a sinful and sorrowful past. As Pope Francis comes among us, we hope that, as a Church, we can move forward respectfully and helpfully, no longer denying the past but by attempting to rectify it.

We wish Pope Francis a safe journey as he arrives in Canada for this extraordinary visit, and we pray that it marks the beginning of a new era of healing and understanding for all of us.

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