It’s a long way from Rome to Maskwacis, Alberta, in western Canada, but Pope Francis— whose mobility is faltering at age 85—believed his mission was important enough to undertake the 10-hour flight.
The trip, the pope said, was a “penitential pilgrimage,” with the main objective to offer a personal apology to Canada’s indigenous people for the Church’s role in the widespread practice of separating Native children from their families and sending them to residential schools, where many were physically, sexually and emotionally abused.
“I am deeply sorry,” the pope said at his first stop Monday, the site of one of the largest residential schools, while the 2,000 survivors, tribal elders and others waiting to greet him broke into cheers at his words.
Funded by the Canadian government under policies of forced assimilation, an estimated 60 percent of the schools were run by members of Christian churches and religious communities of priests and nuns.
Some 150,000 children were sent to the schools while they operated between 1870 and 1997; at least 4,120 of the children died and several thousand others vanished without a trace. Even those who survived lost a vital link to their heritage, language and traditions.
The pope’s apology this week was not the first he has offered on the issue. In April, he apologized to a group of Canadian Natives who met with him at the Vatican to appeal for the Church to acknowledge the damage suffered under the policies.
Francis was wise to apologize again, this time in person, and on the Natives’ own turf, underscoring his own commitment and that of the Church to acknowledging a troubled past.
He also was wise to beg forgiveness not just for the treatment of indigenous people at the schools, but also for “the evil committed by so many Christians against the indigenous peoples” in general for projects of cultural destruction, whether through active cooperation or indifference.
This pope is a pastor first and foremost, and he has conducted his papacy as a pastor even as, by necessity, it’s often on the world stage—as it was in this case.
He has also seen his pontificate as a calling to reach out to the marginalized and powerless peoples of the world, drawing them into the embrace of Jesus, whether they’re Christian or not, and accompanying them on a healing journey.
“Pope Francis…You are the presence of Jesus for them,” said Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller of San Antonio, Texas, in a statement on the pope’s visit to Canada.
The July 24-29 trip must not have been an easy one for the pope at his advanced age. Yet we can’t help but admire his resolve, and encourage him as he continues his ministry to wherever he believes it is needed.
He described his visit to Canada as a first step in his penitential pilgrimage, and promised the Church’s cooperation in further investigating what occurred at the schools and to accompanying survivors in their journey toward healing.
“Here, today, I am with you to recall the past, to grieve with you, to bow our heads together in silence and to pray before the graves,” he said.
We pray that the grief and remembrance will lead to reconciliation and inner peace for those who were pained by these tragic events, and that they’re able to move forward in hope.