Pope Francis in Canada: When the gesture is the message
By Alessandro Gisotti
"An effective process of healing requires concrete actions." Pope Francis had stressed this in the conclusion to his address to the delegations of indigenous peoples of Canada, received at the Vatican, in the spring.
The visit to Canadian soil, which the Pope carried out joyfully despite having difficulty walking, was marked precisely by those "concrete actions" that are gestures. Those actions preceded and accompanied the Pope’s spoken words in the North American country and, in particular, his calls for justice and forgiveness form a premise for an authentic path of reconciliation.
In some ways, the visit itself can be said to have been a concrete action "of enormous impact," to borrow Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's statement. Canadian newspapers published large photos on their front pages in these days to capture such significant gestures.
After all, only a few minutes after arriving in Edmonton, on the first stop of his visit, the Pope had already made a gesture that was as simple as it was effective in giving substance to the definition "penitential pilgrimage" which he had indicated for this Apostolic Journey: kissing the hand of an elderly indigenous lady during the welcoming ceremony at the airport.
Every papal journey can (also) be told in pictures. This is perhaps even more true this time, so strong was the symbolic value of the events and meetings starting with the one on Monday in Maskwacis, which connected well with the concluding event in Iqaluit, with the youth and elders of the Inuit people.
The Pope, in his wheelchair, silently praying in the cemetery of the Ermineskin community. The Pope kissing the red banner imprinted with the names of the children who died in the residential schools and then standing, without the aid of his cane, before the indigenous "Golden Eagle" chief who placed a headdress on his head as a sign of respect and recognition of authority.
There was also the gesture of returning the red moccasins, a symbol of the pain of so many indigenous children, which had been given to him at the Vatican four months ago. Particularly evocative was the image of Pope Francis absorbed in meditation on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, a place that unites indigenous peoples and Catholic faithful in devotion. This offered a snapshot with an evangelical flavor to take us back to the sources of the faith and which, as he later emphasized in his homily, makes us imagine another lake, thousands of kilometers away, that of Galilee inextricably linked to the life and preaching of Jesus.
Even an "ordinary" gesture like the blessing of a sacred image in this context takes on an "extraordinary" value.
When the Pope, in the the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, blessed the statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first North American indigenous woman to be proclaimed a saint, he was in fact telling us that the leaven of the Gospel can—indeed must—grow and enrich the peoples it encounters without annulling their identity and cultural and spiritual heritage, because faith is proclaimed not imposed.
Then there was a gesture that did not make the headlines but bears witness not only to the profound meaning of this journey but to one of the guiding principles of the Petrine ministry: the "revolution of tenderness."
On Thursday, at the end of the Mass in the Shrine of St. Anne de Beaupré, a mother brought her baby, suffering from a severe birth defect, to the Pope for him to bless. It was a very tender moment with the Pope who not only blessed the baby but also held him in his arms next to the mother. In this circumstance too, as in so many others during the trip, the wheelchair did not hinder his closeness to the people. On the contrary, his own condition of fragility made—if possible—the Pope even closer to those who suffer.
Pope Francis never withdrew from the pain of the people he met.
To listen, to listen with the heart—he has shown us many times—we must be close to our neighbor. This attitude was highly visible at Friday’s meeting with former students of the residential school in Iqaluit, "at the edge of the world." Pope Francis sat among them in a row of chairs in the shape of a circle, thus placing himself "as an equal."
Having come as far as only three hundred kilometers from the Arctic Circle, he thus concretely reaffirmed with this gesture that the shepherd must have the smell of the sheep, especially the most distant and wounded ones.
His journey, therefore, saw harmoniously interwoven gestures and words, speeches and concrete actions, like the threads of the colored bands of indigenous robes.
To paraphrase the well-known researcher of mass media Marshall McLuhan (Canadian and Catholic), the gesture became the message. A message of love and reconciliation.