VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ trip to Canada to apologize for the horrors of church-run Indigenous residential schools marks a radical rethink of the Catholic Church’s missionary legacy, spurred on by the first pope from the Americas and the discovery of hundreds of probable graves at the school sites.
Francis has said his weeklong visit, which begins Sunday, is a “penitential pilgrimage” to beg forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “evil” done to Native peoples by Catholic missionaries. It follows his April 1 apology in the Vatican for the generations of trauma Indigenous peoples suffered as a result of a church-enforced policy to eliminate their culture and assimilate them into Canadian, Christian society.
Francis’ tone of personal repentance has signaled a notable shift for the papacy, which has long acknowledged abuses in the residential schools and strongly asserted the rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples. But past popes have also, in the same breath, hailed the sacrifice and holiness of the European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas — something Francis, too, has done but isn’t expected to emphasize during this trip.
Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit who is a top papal adviser at the Vatican, recalled that early on in his papacy, Francis asserted that no single culture can claim a hold on Christianity, and that the church cannot demand that people on other continents imitate the European way of expressing the faith.
“If this conviction had been accepted by everyone involved in the centuries after the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, much suffering would have been avoided, great developments would have occurred and the Americas would be all-around better,” he told The Associated Press in an email.
The trip won’t be easy for the 85-year-old Francis or residential school survivors and their families. Francis can no longer walk without assistance and will be using a wheelchair and cane because of painful strained knee ligaments. Trauma experts are being deployed at all events to provide mental health assistance for school survivors, given the likelihood of triggering situations.
“It is an understatement to say there are mixed emotions,” said Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe, one of the First Nations that are part of the Maskwacis territory where Francis will deliver his first sweeping apology on Monday near the site of a former residential school.
The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the state-funded, Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures.
The legacy of that abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.
“For survivors from coast to coast, this is an opportunity — the first and maybe the last — to perhaps find some closure for themselves and their families,” said Grand Chief Georg Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty Six in Maskwacis.