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Indigenous relations remain top priority for bishops

By Deborah Gyapong

Canadian Catholic News


OTTAWA (CCN) — Whether Pope Francis comes to Canada or not, indigenous relations remain a top priority for Canada’s bishops, says Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Que.

The newly elected president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said a possible papal visit was not a major topic at the bishops’ recent plenary gathering Sept. 25 - 29, but reconciliation remains high on the agenda.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) helped us to “better discover the sufferings of First Nations people,” through the residential schools, Gendron said.

Though the TRC had a number of Calls to Action, including a demand the pope come to Canada to apologize on Canadian soil for the schools, Gendron said the bishops’ response “is not a response to the TRC,” and “not a response to the politicians,” but “our response comes from the Gospel, and comes from our mission.”

That represents a change, he said. “The Spirit has done great things among us and is helping us,” he said. “We were discussing so many things not according to the Gospel and mission as bishops.”

But now the focus has shifted to focus on reconciliation with an awareness of what First Nations brothers sisters “have suffered and are suffering,” he said.

“If the pope wants to come, we will welcome him,” Gendron said. “Our way of interpreting him, Pope Francis would accept, if at the some point we see that it is important, we might as well say, ‘Holy Father, if you wish to come . . .”

The bishops, in other words, are in a process of “accompaniment and discernment,” to find out what the “Spirit is asking of us at this moment” from a “pastoral point of view,” he said.

He noted that when Pope John Paul II visited in 1984, dioceses had groups of people tasked with planning the visit. Pope Francis realizes we do not have this kind of personnel now, Gendron said. The previous CCCB President Douglas Crosby told CCN papal visits are enormously expensive, and discussions are ongoing with various levels of government and other agencies.

Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, who was the most outspoken in favour of a papal visit among the Western Canadian bishops when they made their ad limina visits to Rome last spring, said he is pleased with the direction the CCCB is taking.

“I think the conference is engaging as deeply as ever in its history with indigenous relations,” Bolen said. “It’s a priority. It occupies our time and energy and we’re making steps together.”

“I don’t know that I could have said that a year ago,” he added.

Bolen, who was in Ottawa Sept. 29 to receive the Alumnus of the Year award from Saint Paul University, drew the attention of Pope Francis last spring, according to the apostolic nuncio to Canada.

Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi told the reception in Bolen’s honour that during his annual half-hour audience with the Holy Father last June, Pope Francis mentioned a young bishop who had spoken “in a clear, luminous way” about the importance of reconciliation with Canada’s indigenous peoples during the western bishops’ visit with him.

Bonazzi told him that was Archbishop Don Bolen of Regina. “A very good bishop!” the pope replied.

While indigenous relations and reconciliation remain a “major priority” for the bishops, “the part Pope Francis will play on this has to unfold on the Holy See side of things and unfold in discussions over time,” Bolen said. “Our focus isn’t reduced to the role of Pope Francis.”

Instead, the CCCB is “investing, time, energy, commitment” and resources to reconciliation, and it is yet to be determined exactly “what shape that takes,” he said.

One area the Canadian bishops are focusing on is supporting the six dioceses of Canada’s North: Whitehorse; Mackenzie–Fort Smith; Churchill–Hudson Bay; Moosonee; Grouard-McLennan; and Keewatin–Le Pas that used to be missionary dioceses under the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, but are now normal dioceses.

“Because of the transfer . . .  we are building relationships with these northern dioceses and their peoples on a level that has never happened before and that’s a beautiful thing,” Bolen said. “In my diocese and every diocese, good discussions are going on on what it means to be in relationship, or be a twin with a diocese or part of a diocese,” he said. “I think there’s some excitement about this.” 

“It’s not seen as a burden, but it’s about a relationship we didn’t have or only had in a minimal way,” he said. To that end, Bolen is planning a visit to Inuvik.

“For me, like many bishops, the north is kind of a new territory for me. I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the north,” he said.

The northern dioceses rely on support from Catholic Missions in Canada and will now need greater help from richer dioceses in Canada’s south. During the plenary, several bishops spoke in solidarity with the northern dioceses, and explored ways of twinning dioceses or parts of dioceses.

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