SASKATOON — The Catholic bishops of Saskatchewan remain hopeful about a recent invitation asking Pope Francis to visit the province to meet with indigenous leaders, elders and residential school survivors.
Canadian bishops were recently informed that Pope Francis will not be visiting Canada in 2017, but may consider a visit in 2018 or 2019.
“Pope Francis receives many invitations, far more than he can accept,” said Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, “but we remain hopeful. Our indigenous brothers and sisters have asked him to come to Canada, and we support them in this request.”
“It is our deepest hope and prayer that this will help to bring healing to some of the deepest wounds in the Canadian church and society. We want to be a part of the healing and reconciliation process,” said Bolen.
The bishops of Saskatchewan affirmed that the principal purpose of a visit by Pope Francis would be to meet with, listen to and address indigenous people.
The decision to support the request for Pope Francis to come to Canada — and the idea that such a visit might be particularly appropriate in Saskatchewan — first arose out of conversations with indigenous leaders in this province as the church grappled with the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and sought ways to join First Nations and Métis brothers and sisters in the work of healing, reconciliation and relationship-building.
The TRC Final Report released in June 2015 presented 94 Calls to Action, including Call to Action #58, which requested a papal apology on Canadian soil for Catholic involvement in residential schools and the spiritual, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of indigenous children that happened in Catholic-run residential schools. Catholic dioceses and religious orders operated about 60 per cent of the government-mandated schools that operated in Canada for over a century.
“We continue to grow in our awareness of more of the negative pieces of our colonial Canadian history. We recognize more openly the good and the negative parts our Catholic Church has played in the historical encounter between the colonizers and those being colonized,” said Archbishop Murray Chatlain of the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas.
“We hope that the Holy Father, coming and meeting with Aboriginal, Inuit and Métis representatives from all of Canada, where he may express an apology and could communicate the whole church’s commitment to be in real dialogue with each other, would be a great blessing,” Chatlain said.
“Our fervent prayer is that a visit by Pope Francis could promote a mature, ongoing relationship. This visit may act as a catalyst to valuing the spiritual traditions and culture of our indigenous people along with all the other cultural backgrounds that make up our Canadian Catholic population. We have things to learn from each other,” Chatlain added.
An encounter between Pope Francis and the Aboriginal and Métis people of Canada is of great importance to healing relationships that were damaged, said Bishop Albert Thévenot, M. Afr., of the Diocese of Prince Albert.
“With good intentions, the church joined the colonial power while serving the poor. Was this a contradiction? Many have suffered and were hurt. Traditions and belief were destroyed. The consequences are still visible today. Together we must put before us a plan of action and in dialogue with one another,” Thévenot said.
Bishop Bryan Bayda, CSsR, of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Saskatoon, expressed support for any efforts that will heal families.
“Disrupted cultural normalcy of any family may result in a lack of meaningfulness, poverty, addictions and crime,” said Bayda. “The families in Canada and particularly in Saskatchewan would benefit greatly from any attention the Holy Father could bring into focus on this issue.”
The idea of a visit from Pope Francis is generating interest and excitement in the province.
“If it comes about, this would represent the first occasion that the province of Saskatchewan would enjoy a papal visit, and particularly from a pope who speaks in such profound ways to the needs of the marginalized of our society,” said Rev. Kevin McGee, diocesan administrator for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Saskatoon.
“The bishops would welcome such a visit as an opportunity for Pope Francis to speak words of healing and reconciliation on behalf of the Catholic Church to our indigenous brothers and sisters who have experienced deep wounds as a result of church-sponsored colonization as well as abuses that took place in residential schools that were under the direction of Catholic leadership,” he said.
“A papal visit would also be a celebration of our faith, affirming the various ways we are called to witness to a gospel of love and mercy in our families, society, environment and world,” McGee added.
The papal invitation must be kept in perspective, cautioned Bolen. “The Holy Father is only able to make a small number of international trips in any given year, and the world’s needs are many. Nonetheless, even the possibility of a papal visit necessitates a great deal of planning,” he said.
Research into what is involved, and preliminary conversations with indigenous leaders and with various levels of government and civic authorities have been initiated, said Don Gorsalitz of the Diocese of Saskatoon Catholic Foundation. Experts are being consulted and engaged in the areas of logistics, event planning, communications, transportation and in crowd, health and safety control. “Building the financial capacity to host a papal visit is also underway,” he said.
Wanuskewin Heritage Park near Saskatoon — a place that for the past 6,000 years has been rich in indigenous culture, spirituality and history — has been identified and supported by the indigenous community as a desirable location for a papal apology, Gorsalitz added.
If a papal pastoral visit becomes likely, it would also need to be co-ordinated with the Vatican and with other Canadian dioceses that have extended an invitation to Pope Francis, the Saskatchewan bishops noted.
And while this particular invitation has been supported by the bishops of Saskatchewan, Chatlain expressed the hope that their effort “would be an expression of all our (Canadian) dioceses’ desire for a renewed relationship with our Aboriginal brothers and sisters.”
Beyond a possible papal visit, the Catholic dioceses and eparchy in Saskatchewan are continuing to build relationships and to seek ways to stand in solidarity with indigenous people, added the archbishop of Regina.
“It is now an appropriate and critical time for renewed commitment for our church to work alongside indigenous peoples in the pursuit of justice and well-being. For generations there have been those who have built bridges and strengthened relations, but the Truth and Reconciliation report rightly summons all of us to take responsibility for the past and to work towards a different and healthier future,” Bolen said.