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Pope Francis is greeted by George Arcand, Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations and Governor General Mary Simon (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

From “A Day of Small Beginnings” back on April 1 of this year, Pope Francis landed in Edmonton on Sunday (my home city of all places) to carry out what he called his penitential pilgrimage to apologize on behalf the historical Catholic Church for the doctrines, actions, and uncounted diminishments that led to genocide of First Nations Peoples in Canada.

Pope Francis @Pontifex
Dear brothers and sisters of #Canada, I come among you to meet the indigenous peoples. I hope, with God’s grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken. Please accompany me with #prayer.

What is needed to be ready to seek forgiveness?

Pope Francis comes aging, physically disabled, and being transported in a wheel chair to make sure this penitence happened while he still could; while there was still political and spiritual will to finally make this apology on Canadian soil in response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation “Calls to Action“.

I wonder if aging and diminishing are prerequisites to seeking forgiveness and giving forgiveness? I suspect that humility in its many forms is needed to be able to accept – to fully take in the harm that was done by you or your family, or this case, your church.

There can be no pride in making an apology; one must bow in the earthy soil of humility. Therefore as a Christian whose faith tradition neither existed during the residential school period, nor participated in it, I do not absolve myself of responsibility from those who did these wicked things in Jesus name. Though I’d like to think I would have lived consistent with the Lord I follow and love, I can admit that had I been in that era, I probably would’ve been subsumed into the societal morass of assimilation. But now, as one who bears His name, I am called to truth and reconciliation, to be an ambassador of reconciliation, and to take the long walk of doing and undoing.

Where Healing Begins

Historic in other ways is the fact that the Pope was welcomed by Canada’s Royal head of state, Mary Simon, who is Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General (she can be seen between Grand Chief Arcand and Pope Francis in the photo above).

“For him to come out here to do it in person — I can’t say enough how important that is because that’s where healing begins,” Chief Vernon Saddleback said at a news conference Thursday. “When you own up to actions, then you can start the process of walking towards forgiveness.

Father Raymond de Souza writes,

Pope Francis will arrive… as a pastor, a pilgrim, a penitent and, inescapably, as a player in political controversy.

… Pope Francis has not visited Germany, India, Australia or even his native Argentina. That the ailing pope, using a wheelchair and restraining his public appearances to less than an hour, is making the long trek, including to Iqaluit, will be deeply appreciated by the Indigenous people he will meet. That Pope Francis cancelled trips to Lebanon and to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan in the past two months, but is still coming to Canada, manifests how seriously he takes his duties as universal pastor of the Catholic Church and, in particular, his role as pastor to Canada’s Indigenous Catholics.

… People who rarely, if ever, pray, find it nearly impossible to understand why people would make arduous journeys in order to lift their hearts to God in a holy place. But pilgrims have been doing that since the dawn of time in every culture. The pilgrims… will welcome Pope Francis as a fellow pilgrim, a fellow seeker of the sacred coming to honour their own Christian and Indigenous traditions.

“Begging Pardon – the First Step”

On Monday morning Pope Francis gave his first apology:

I have been waiting to come here and be with you. Here, from this place associated with painful memories, I would like to begin what I consider a penitential pilgrimage. I have come to your native lands to tell you in person of my sorrow, to implore God’s forgiveness, healing and reconciliation, to express my closeness and to pray with you and for you.

The memory of those children is indeed painful; it urges us to work to ensure that every child is treated with love, honour and respect. At the same time, those moccasins also speak to us of a path to follow, a journey that we desire to make together. We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together, so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation.

That is why the first part of my pilgrimage among you takes place in this region, which from time immemorial has seen the presence of Indigenous Peoples. These are lands that speak to us; they enable us to remember.

To remember, brothers and sisters, you have lived on these lands for thousands of years, following ways of life that respect the Earth, which you received as a legacy from past generations and are keeping for those yet to come. You have treated it as a gift of the Creator to be shared with others and to be cherished in harmony with all that exists, in profound fellowship with all living beings.

Today I am here, in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still open wounds.

I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples.

I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities co-operated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.

Dear brothers and sisters, many of you and your representatives have stated that begging pardon is not the end of the matter. I fully agree: that is only the first step, the starting point.

See the full text in “Pope Francis begs forgiveness“.

Reactions to the Apology

Sorrow and anger mingled among the listeners. Some (many?) Indigenous people wanted more from this apology from the Pope; some wept out of relief; some just wept.

To see more reactions go to: “Reactions to the Apology“.

Later in the day Pope Francis continued to add to his apology:

It pains me to think that Catholics contributed to policies of assimilation and disenfranchisement that inculcated a sense of inferiority — robbing communities and individuals of their cultural and spiritual identity, severing their roots and fostering prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes. And that this was also done in the name of an educational system that was supposedly Christian.

Our own walk toward forgiveness

I suppose it is easy to pile on the Pope and the Catholic Church – as Canadians have been doing – along with marginalizing any Christian voice from the public square. I get it. The scorn has been richly earned. Baby thrown out with the bath water.

But as Jesus said, while it is easy to see the speck in another person’s eye, it is harder to see the plank in our own. The reality is each one of us need to take a walk toward forgiveness; each one of us needs a penitential pilgrimage.

This is more enigma than dogma…

For comparison see the Archbishop of Canterbury’s apology from May of this year: “Building Hell and putting Children into it.”