Did the Pope’s visit to Canada achieve its objectives?

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Sabrina Almeida

I’d have loved to attend a Papal mass in Edmonton or Quebec! Not surprising given that I’m a staunch Roman Catholic and, like thousands of others, a huge fan of Pope Francis. But it wasn’t logistically possible and I’m not terribly disappointed. After all this was a penitential journey aimed at acknowledging and apologizing for the wrong done to the Indigenous people by some members of the Catholic Church. Not an apostolic one that would extend the privilege of a Papal audience to the Roman Catholic faithful in Canada.

Expectations were high, both among the Indigenous and non-Indigenous like me. Pope Francis’ theology of the Church being a place of love and mercy, break with many “formalities” and deeply inclusive spirit made him the best man to be tasked with reconciliation. And so, I eagerly awaited the words of love that would start to heal centuries of hurt, abuse and being marginalized by people in positions of power.

As planned, he delivered the highly-anticipated apology on Canadian soil. The media has published innumerable reactions about what was said and what wasn’t. There was so much riding on this visit that it would have been impossible to check off all the boxes. Yet, even I, a non-Indigenous person was disappointed by what was missed.

I understand that the apology speech was carefully scripted, to avoid further controversy (and protect the Church) which explains why there was so little of the real Pope Francis in it. And so, one hung on to the hope that more would be forthcoming.

The Papal mass at Edmonton missed the mark completely by failing to incorporate any elements of Indigenous culture in the liturgical service. The inclusion of Latin, on the other hand, seemed to transport many participants back in time (with painful connotations) rather than help take them forward. While I love hearing prayers and hymns in Latin, it just didn’t fit this occasion and the objective of the Papal visit. A traditional Indigenous celebration of mass, or least some parts of it, would have meant so much more. I’m sure Pope Francis would have loved that too.

What was missed? The opportunity to showcase the Church’s intent to be truly inclusive of Indigenous people… the chance to atone for past sins and live the apology… the perfect stage to model the acceptance which all Catholics, non-Indigenous Canadians and the world could replicate. So, I understand why so many residential school survivors and Indigenous people continue to feel hurt and angry.

The absence of any official denouncement of the ‘doctrine of discovery’ which legitimized the abusive behaviour,  lack of acknowledgement of ‘genocide’ in the Catholic-run residential schools and plan to release records now held in Rome also left many survivors and their families feeling let down. Of course, they were looking beyond the words!!!

News reports suggest that Pope Francis finally acknowledged that the abusive process of forced assimilation in residential schools was genocide on his flight back to Rome. He also reportedly said that hearing the pain of the Indigenous people in Canada felt like slaps. While some welcomed these words, others said it should have been part of his official talks on Canadian soil. Yet these off-the-cuff statements are characteristic of the unscripted Pope Francis who would have been so much more effective in the truth and reconciliation process.

No one doubts the Pope’s sincerity or the physical effort he made on this penitential pilgrimage given his infirmities. There was ample evidence of both during his five-day trip here. But what was disappointing to so many was that he couldn’t get the Catholic Church to action its apology. Being the head, and given his reputation for outreach, expectations were extremely high and ended up being mostly unmet.

Pope Francis’ visit and apology has triggered different emotions. It has opened up old wounds for some and helped start the healing process for others. But because so much more could have been said and done, the follow up is of critical importance. The Catholic Church must now translate all the words uttered by the Pope into meaningful action. It will not only make his penitential pilgrimage count, but is also the only way forward!!!

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