The ‘solemn purpose’ of the Pope’s penitential pilgrimage
By Christopher Wells
As Pope Francis was arriving in Canada on Sunday morning, parishioners at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in downtown Edmonton were celebrating Sunday Mass. The inculturated liturgy began with a smudging ceremony – an indigenous tradition that involves burning medicinal plants as a symbolic form of cleansing – and a procession including indigenous drummers, and continued with indigenous music and parts of the Mass said in the Cree language.
As he welcomed those present, either in person or watching remotely on a feed broadcast throughout the country, Sacred Heart’s pastor, Fr Susai Jesu, OMI, reminded the faithful that “welcoming and inclusion” are at the heart of the community’s values.
The people of Sacred Heart are eagerly awaiting the Pope’s visit to the parish on Monday afternoon. On Sunday morning, there was a palpable feeling of excitement and emotion. But as Father Mark Bloom pointed out in his homily at the Mass, for all the joy that comes with a papal visit, this journey also has a “solemn purpose”: the visible head of the Catholic Church is coming to Canada on a mission of repentance and contrition for the harm done to Indigenous Peoples by members of the Church and by ecclesial institutions.
Father Bloom acknowledged the Church’s role in the history of the residential school system when the Church took part in practices that interfered with Indigenous parents' efforts to pass on “good things” to their children (a reference to Jesus’ words in the day’s Gospels). By taking indigenous children from their homes and families, they denied them the opportunity to pass on their language, wisdom, family life, land, spirituality, and more.
For that, the Church asks forgiveness, he said, and he expressed his hope that walking together with Indigenous Peoples, the Church would be able to contribute to a process of reconciliation that will bear fruit in years to come.
It's a message that echoed the words of Pope Francis, who, meeting with representatives of Indigenous Peoples in Rome earlier this year, expressed his “sorrow and shame” for the role of Catholics in events and practices that have left lasting wounds and traumas.
In his address to the Indigenous delegates, the Pope said, “Any truly effective process of healing requires concrete actions.” Then, after calling on Catholics “to continue taking steps towards the transparent search for truth and to foster healing and reconciliation,” he continued, “These steps are part of a journey that can favour the rediscovery and revitalization of your culture, while helping the Church to grow in love, respect and specific attention to your authentic traditions. I wish to tell you that the Church stands beside you and wants to continue journeying with you.”
During the course of this week, the Pope’s penitential pilgrimage among the Indigenous Peoples of Canada will take him to a former residential school, the Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage Grounds in Alberta and the Shrine of St Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and to the Inuit community in Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut. As he meets with residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, he will be striving to advance the process of healing and reconciliation in a spirit of repentance and contrition.