Bishop of Edmonton looks ahead to Pope's penitential pilgrimage
By Christopher Wells
Archbishop Richard Smith is convinced Pope Francis’s penitential pilgrimage to Canada’s indigenous peoples will reveal the Holy Father once again as “a man of profound compassion,” who will demonstrate the Church’s commitment to hearing the pain of the aboriginal peoples and responding to it with reconciliation and healing.
The Archbishop of the western city of Edmonton – the first stop on the upcoming papal journey – recalled the Pope’s meeting with representatives of Canada’s indigenous populations during a visit to Rome this spring. “What happened in Rome is that the delegation of indigenous peoples encountered in the Holy Father a man of profound compassion,” the Archbishop said. “They spoke what was in their hearts and in their minds, and they could see that he was listening very deeply, very attentively, not only with his mind, but also, and more importantly, I would suggest with his heart.”
“The Church stands with you”
At that meeting, Archbishop Smith noted, Pope Francis “spoke with profound compassion” making his own stance, and the Church’s stance, “very, very clear.”
“That is a stance that hears the pain and wants to respond to it with healing, a stance that acknowledges the rights of indigenous peoples and wants to uphold them with them. A stance that acknowledges the giftedness and the beauty of indigenous culture and the great wisdom that lies therein.”
Archbishop Smith said the Pope’s message could be summed up with the words, “The Church stands with you… Don’t forget that, the Church stands with you!”
A sense of hope and healing
He also emphasized the significance of the Pope’s personal presence in Canada. In the first place, he said, there is the personality of Pope Francis himself “which does touch people right away.” He noted the “wonderful, wonderful sense of healing and hope” that many people experience on meeting the Holy Father.
“But more profoundly,” Archbishop Smith continued, Catholics understand the Pope as the successor of Saint Peter. And when he comes to any area, he brings with him the shadow of Saint Peter. We know that from the Acts of the Apostles, but that in itself brought healing and hope to people who were touched simply by the shadow of Peter as he walked by. When Pope Francis comes to this country, he's bringing that shadow with him wherever he goes.”
Drawing close to the indigenous peoples
Archbishop Smith said that Catholics in Canada want to ensure indigenous peoples of their solidarity and support, adding, “there is no one better placed to speak on behalf of us all than the Holy Father.”
The Bishops of Canada in particular, he said, have tried to express the desire “to draw close, to work together with the indigenous peoples, to discern together with them how we can face the various challenges that they are encountering, how we can together learn from them, from their wisdom, and how we can learn from that as a country.” The Holy Father, he continued, “given his office and given the particular personality of Pope Francis, has unique ability to make that message heard more clearly than anybody else could.”
The Archbishop said the Church in Canada sees the Holy Father “very much as a spokesman,” who will be able to express their own “sentiments and hopes” to the aboriginal peoples of Canada.
A broader need for healing and reconciliation
At the same time, he said, “the need for healing and reconciliation exists everywhere, far beyond this particular relationship.” He gave the examples of societal divisions revealed and exacerbated by the pandemic, the need for healing in families and in individual hearts, and, on a global level, the war in Ukraine and other instances of terrible aggression,” all instances of situations in need of healing and reconciliation.
He said he hoped and prayed “that what unfolds here in Canada, as as we grapple with the issue and face it, together with the pope, together with our indigenous peoples, look at the issues and move forward. But that by God's grace, obviously, we become a beacon of hope for our world.”
A legacy in need of healing
Acknowledging the pain and suffering that have long marked the Church’s relationship with indigenous people, Archbishop Smith insisted on the need to hear the stories of people’s “pain and heartache, the legacy that continues to impact them and their families in a number of different ways.”
Catholics today, even though they may not be personally guilty of the sins and errors of the past, have inherited that legacy of past guilt, and must ask themselves, “How do we together receive the legacy and then help in healing?”
That, he said, “is the responsibility that falls on the shoulders of us today.”
Archbishop Smith tied that insight to the theme of “Walking Together,” the theme of the Pope’s Visit. “This is what we understand we need to do right now: Walk together, find pathways to mutual understanding, to mutual respect, mutual help healing,” he said.
An impetus to move forward
He added, “The need for healing exists across the board, but the sense of wanting to take this issue on fully and move forward in a way that will bring healing to everybody that needs it is something that really does see us right now as a nation, it seems to me. And this is going to be a great opportunity to receive from the Pope a real impetus forward.”