First Nations chief hopes papal meeting will lead to apology


First Nations chief hopes papal meeting will lead to apology

Pictured left: Cardinal Gérald C. Lacroix of Québec distributes Communion to an Innu woman on First Nations Sunday at the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré June 27.  Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Assembly of First Nations hopes a meeting with Pope Francis in December will result in an apology for the Church’s role in Canada’s residential school system.  (CNS photo/Philippe Vaillancourt, Presence)

OTTAWA (CCN)—There is no guarantee that a delegation of Indigenous people will receive an apology from Pope Francis when they meet with him in December, but the Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations is praying that it happens.

Grand Chief Perry Bellegarde said a visit to the Vatican Dec. 17 to 20 will be an opportunity for Canada’s First Nations to convince the Pope that reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous Canadians can only move forward if he visits Canada and apologizes to survivors and families on the “soil and the land” where the abuses of the residential school system occurred.

“The meeting has been confirmed at the Vatican so we are going to take that meeting and then at that time take the opportunity to invite His Holiness back to Canada at some point in the future,” Chief Bellegarde said during a June 30 press conference.

“There are no guarantees of any apology or that he will even come back to Canada, but we have to make the attempt and we have to seize the opportunity,” said Bellegarde. “I believe the spirit will move and things will happen in a good way. That is my hope and that is my prayer.”

The press conference came a day after the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops confirmed a meeting between representatives of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the Pope will be held at the Vatican in December. The bishops had previously announced a delegation of Indigenous people would meet with the Holy Father this year to foster meaningful encounters of dialogue and healing.

The bishops’ June 29 announcement said the pastoral visit will include “the participation of a diverse group of Elders/Knowledge Keepers, residential school survivors, and youth from across the country.”

Bellegarde said he is hopeful that Canada’s bishops will formally ask Pope Francis to come to Canada for an apology because the CCCB is an important organization that the AFN has established a relationship of mutual respect with.

One of the key recommendations of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission was a demand for a formal apology to be made by the Pope in Canada on behalf of the Catholic Church for its role in the residential school system.

Calls for the Pope to make such an apology have been made before, including by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as recently as June.

In their June 29 statement the bishops said, “Pope Francis is deeply committed to hearing directly from Indigenous Peoples, expressing his heartfelt closeness, addressing the impact of colonization and the role of the Church in the residential school system, in the hopes of responding to the suffering of Indigenous Peoples and the ongoing effects of intergenerational trauma.”

The bishops said they “are deeply appreciative of the Holy Father’s spirit of openness in generously extending an invitation for personal encounters with each of the three distinct groups of delegates – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – as well as a final audience with all delegates together on 20 December 2021.”

A small group of bishops and Indigenous leaders will accompany the delegation, said the bishops.

“The Bishops of Canada reaffirm their sincere hope that these forthcoming encounters will lead to a shared future of peace and harmony between Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada,” said the bishops, adding that planning for the visit is ongoing and further details will be announced when they are available.

In their June 10 announcement the bishops said they had been working for more than two years on a pastoral visit with residential school survivors. The visit was stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic, but the bishops pledged to “moving forward with the delegation prior to the end of 2021, in compliance with international travel guidelines.”

That announcement came two weeks after the discovery of remains at a burial site at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, which the statement said serves as a reminder “of a tragic legacy still felt today.”

The bishops said they had “genuinely heard the sincere invitation to engage wholeheartedly with the past and are deeply committed to take truly meaningful active steps together with Indigenous Peoples in view of a future filled with greater respect and cooperation.”

The delegation to the Holy See “represents an important step on the journey of reconciliation and shared healing for Indigenous Peoples and the Church in Canada,” said the bishops.

Preparations for the pastoral visit have included talks with Indigenous people and communities at local and national levels, and bilaterally with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit national organizations, said the bishops.

“With the strong encouragement of Pope Francis, the Bishops of Canada have pledged true and deep commitment to renewing and strengthening relationships with Indigenous Peoples across the land. In recent years, regional and diocesan listening circles have taken place across the country in order to hear the stories from local Indigenous communities and their hopes for the future. Mutual listening is the beginning of our common efforts to bring about shared and long-lasting reconciliation, authentic healing and bridge building.”

The bishops noted that Pope Francis in his June 6 Angelus message “spoke about the shocking discovery of children’s remains at the former Kamloops residential school and, while conveying sorrow and solidarity, emphasized the importance of “walking side by side in dialogue and in mutual respect in the recognition of the rights and cultural values of all the sons and daughters of Canada.”

“It is our hope that these forthcoming encounters – and the important collaboration and partnership that has supported the planning – will lead to a shared future of peace and harmony between Indigenous Peoples and the Catholic Church in Canada.”

By Brian Dryden

Published on the B.C. Catholic website