VATICAN CITY (AP) – Pope Francis’ trip to Canada to apologize for the atrocities of church-run Aboriginal residential schools marks a radical rethinking of the Catholic Church’s missionary heritage, pushed by the first Pope of the Americas, and the discovery of hundreds of potential graves at the school’s sites.
Francis said his week-long visit, which begins on Sunday, is a “punitive trip” to plead on Canadian soil for the “evil” that Catholic missionaries have done against indigenous peoples. It comes after he apologized at the Vatican on April 1 for generations of trauma, as indigenous people suffered as a result of a church-imposed policy to eradicate their culture and integrate them into Canadian and Christian society.
Francis’s personal tone of penitence signaled a marked shift in the papacy, which had long acknowledged abuses in boarding schools and strongly affirmed the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples. But previous popes have also praised the sacrifice and holiness of European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas – something Francis also did but not expected to be emphasized during this trip.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit and a senior papal advisor, noted that early in the papacy, Francis asserted that no culture on its own could claim control of Christianity, and that the Church could not require people on other continents to imitate the European way of expressing the faith.
“If this condemnation had been accepted by all who participated in the centuries since the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, much suffering could have been avoided, great developments had taken place and the Americas would be in a better position,” he told The Associated Press. in a letter.
The journey won’t be easy for 85-year-old Francis or the boarding school survivors and their families. Francis can no longer walk unassisted and will use a wheelchair and cane due to strained painful knee ligaments. Trauma experts are deployed to all events to provide mental health assistance to school survivors, due to the potential to evoke memories.
Leader Desmond Poole of the Louis Poole Tribe, one of the First Nations that forms part of Masquasis territory, said Francis will deliver his first comprehensive apology on Monday near the site of a former residential school.
The Canadian government acknowledged that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an attempt to isolate them from the influence of their indigenous homes, languages and cultures.
Indigenous leaders have cited this legacy of abuse and family isolation as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.
“For survivors from coast to coast, this is a chance – the first and possibly the last – to maybe find some closure for themselves and their families,” said President Randy Ermineskin of Ermineskin Cree Nation.
“This will be a difficult but necessary process,” he said.
Unlike most papal excursions, diplomatic protocols take a back seat to personal encounters with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit survivors. Francis doesn’t formally meet Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until halfway through, in Quebec City, though Trudeau will greet him on the tarmac when he arrives on Sunday.
Francis also ended the trip in unusual fashion, stopping in Iqaluit, Nunavut – the farthest north he had ever traveled – to offer his apologies to the Inuit community before returning to Rome.
As recently as 2018, Francis refused to apologize personally for boarding school abuses, even after the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 documented institutional censure and specifically recommended a papal apology delivered on Canadian soil.
Trudeau traveled to the Vatican in 2017 to plead with Francis to apologize, but the Pope felt he “could not answer in person” to the call, Canadian bishops said at the time.
What has changed? The first pope from the Americas, who had long advocated for the rights of indigenous peoples, had already apologized in Bolivia in 2015 for colonial-era crimes against indigenous peoples.
In 2019, Francis – an Argentine Jesuit – hosted a major Vatican conference on the Amazon region, highlighting that the grievances suffered by indigenous peoples during the colonial era persist, as their lands and resources are exploited by corporate interests.
Then in 2021, the remains of about 200 children were found at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Aboriginal residential school, in Kamloops, British Columbia. More potential graves have been followed outside of other former boarding schools.
“Only when our children began to be found in mass graves, and gained international attention, was this painful period of our history brought to light,” said Paul, the leader of the Louis Paul tribe.
After the discovery, Francis finally agreed to meet with the indigenous delegations last spring and promised to come to their lands to apologize in person.
“It is clear that there are wounds that are still open and that require a response,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni when asked about the evolution of the papal response.
One such wound relates to papal influences in the doctrine of discovery, the nineteenth-century international legal concept often understood as the legitimation of European colonial appropriation of lands and resources from indigenous peoples.
For decades, indigenous peoples have formally demanded the Holy See repeal the 15th-century papal decrees or ordinances that gave European kingdoms religious support to claim lands “discovered” by explorers in order to spread the Christian faith.
Church officials have long rejected these concepts, insisting that the ordinances sought only to ensure that European expansion was peaceful, and they argued that later church teachings had outgrown them and placed a strong emphasis on the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.
But it’s still tough for Michelle Shenandoah, a member of the Wolf Nation Oneida clan, who was the last person to address the pope when the First Nations delegation met him on March 31.
She wore a cradle plate on her back to represent the children who lost their lives in boarding schools, and told him that the principle of discovery “led to the continued taking of our children.”
“It has deprived us of our dignity and freedom and led to the exploitation of Mother Earth,” she said. I begged Francis to “liberate the world from its place of enslavement” because of the decrees.
When asked about the calls, Bruni said there was a clear “thinking” going on at the Holy See but he didn’t think anything would be announced during this trip.
This version corrects the attribution of the quote about the closure to President Randy Ermenskine.
The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported by an Associated Press collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.