Pope’s Indigenous Tour signals a rethinking of mission legacy

Pope’s Indigenous Tour signals a rethinking of mission legacy

VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis’ trip to Canada to apologize for the horrors at church-run Indigenous boarding schools marks a radical rethinking of the Catholic Church’s missionary legacy, led by the first pope from America and the discovery of Hundreds of missionaries were spurred on by probable graves at school sites.

Francis said his week-long visit, which begins Sunday, was a “penitential pilgrimage” to seek forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “evil” done to indigenous people by Catholic missionaries. It follows his April 1 apology at the Vatican for the generations of trauma suffered by indigenous peoples as a result of Church-enforced policies to eliminate their culture and integrate them into Canadian Christian society.

Francis’ tone of personal remorse has signaled a remarkable shift for the papacy, which has long acknowledged abuses at boarding schools and strongly affirmed the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples. But previous popes have also hailed the sacrifice and holiness of the European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to America – something Francis also did but is not meant to emphasize in this trip.

Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit and senior papal adviser, recalled that early in his tenure Francis asserted that no single culture could lay claim to Christianity and that the Church could not demand that people on other continents follow the European path imitate to express faith.

“If that belief had been accepted by all concerned in the centuries following the ‘discovery’ of America, much suffering would have been avoided, great developments would have occurred, and America would have been better all round,” he told The Associated Press in an email.

The journey will not be easy for 85-year-old Francis, nor for the boarding school survivors and their families. Francis can no longer walk unaided and will be dependent on a wheelchair and a cane due to painful ligament strains in his knee. Trauma professionals are deployed at all events to provide psychological support to school survivors due to the likelihood of triggering memories.

“To say there are mixed feelings is an understatement,” said Chief Desmond Bull of the Louis Bull Tribe, one of the First Nations that are part of the Maskwacis territory, where Francis made his first full-scale apology near the site on Monday a former boarding school.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century through the 1970s. About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to participate in order to isolate them from the influence of their homeland, native languages ​​and cultures.

The legacy of this abuse and isolation from family has been cited by Indigenous leaders as a major cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.

“For survivors from coast to coast, this is an opportunity — the first and perhaps last — to perhaps find closure for themselves and their families,” said Chief Randy Ermineskin of the Ermineskin Cree Nation.

“It will be a difficult process, but a necessary one,” he said.

Unlike most papal journeys, diplomatic protocol takes a back seat to face-to-face encounters with First Nations, Metis, and Inuit survivors. Francis does not officially meet Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau until halfway down Quebec City, although Trudeau will greet him on the tarmac when he arrives on Sunday.

Francis also ends the trip in an unusual way, stopping in Iqaluit, Nunavut – the furthest north he has ever traveled – to apologize to the Inuit community before flying back to Rome.

As late as 2018, Francis had refused to personally apologize for boarding school abuse, even after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission documented institutional guilt in 2015 and specifically recommended a papal apology on Canadian soil.

Trudeau traveled to the Vatican in 2017 to appeal to Pope Francis to apologize, but the pope felt “he couldn’t personally respond to the call,” Canadian bishops said at the time.

What has changed? The first pope from America who has long campaigned for the rights of indigenous peoples had already apologized in 2015 in Bolivia for colonial-era crimes against indigenous people.

In 2019, Francis – an Argentine Jesuit – hosted a major Vatican conference on the Amazon, highlighting that the injustices suffered by the indigenous people during the colonial era still persist and their lands and resources are being exploited by corporate interests .

Then, in 2021, the remains of around 200 children were found at the site of what was once Canada’s largest Indigenous residential school in Kamloops, British Columbia. More probable graves followed outside other former hostels.

“It wasn’t until our children began being found in mass graves, which drew international attention, that light was shed on this painful period of our history,” said Bull, chief of the Louis Bull Tribe.

After the discovery, Francis finally agreed to meet with indigenous delegations last spring and promised to come to their country to apologize in person.

“Obviously there are wounds that have remained open and require an answer,” Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said when asked about the development of the papal response.

One of these wounds concerns papal influences in the Doctrine of Discovery, the 19th-century international legal concept often understood as legitimizing European colonial confiscation of lands and resources from native peoples.

For decades, indigenous peoples have urged the Holy See to formally rescind the 15th-century papal bulls, or decrees, that gave European kingdoms the religious support they needed to claim lands their discoverers had “discovered” in order to spread the Christian faith .

Church officials have long dismissed these concepts, insisting the decrees were aimed simply at ensuring peaceful European expansion and saying they had been superseded by later church teachings, which strongly affirmed the dignity and rights of indigenous peoples.

But things are still raw for Michelle Schenandoah, a member of the Wolf Clan of the Oneida Nation.

She carried a cradle on her back to represent the children whose lives were being lost in boarding schools and told him the Doctrine of Discovery “resulted in our babies being taken away continually.”

“It has robbed us of our dignity and our freedom and has led to the exploitation of our mother earth,” she said. She asked Francis to “free the world from its place of enslavement” caused by the decrees.

Asked about the calls, Bruni said there was an articulate “reflection” underway in the Holy See, but he didn’t think anything would be announced during that trip.


This version corrects the attribution of the quote about the closure to Chief Randy Ermineskin.


The Associated Press’s religion coverage is supported by AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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