EDMONTON, Canada (RNS) — After issuing an impassioned apology to the Indigenous people of Canada on Monday (July 25), Pope Francis gave voice to his vision for reconciliation before an Indigenous Catholic congregation in Edmonton.
The pope encouraged faithful at the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples to see “Christ, crucified in the many students of the residential schools,” adding that “this is the way forward.” He also praised their everyday work in helping integrate and support Indigenous and immigrant communities.
Pope Francis’ July 24 – 29 “penitential pilgrimage” to the Indigenous territories in Canada is the last in a long series of efforts made by his papal predecessors and Canadian bishops to atone for the church’s role in enforcing the government programs that separated Indigenous children from their families, land, language and culture.
Indigenous leaders said the pope’s apology is only a first step in the path toward reconciliation and, in a press conference Monday morning, voiced their hope that Francis and the Vatican will follow their words with concrete actions.
Pope Francis praised the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples congregation in Edmonton as an example of the new face of Catholicism in the country.
“This place is a house for all, open and inclusive, just as the Church should be, for it is the family of the children of God, where hospitality and welcome, typical values of the Indigenous culture, are essential,” he said. “A home where everyone should feel welcome, regardless of past experiences and personal life stories.”
The church, built in 1913, welcomes Indigenous and non-Indigenous faithful, as well as a large group of immigrants from Italy, Spain, Portugal, Croatia and Eritrea. Francis praised the church’s efforts in helping to support, clothe and feed the poor, addicted and homeless who come there for help.
By introducing Indigenous traditions into its worship, the church became a safe haven for First Nations, the Métis and the Inuit communities and was designated as Canada’s National Indigenous Parish in 1991. It offers support for survivors of Canada’s residential schools and hosts initiatives aimed at promoting and safeguarding the traditions and heritages that those institutions almost eradicated.
“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,” Pope Francis said.
The path toward reconciliation laid out by Christ, he continued, is not “a gentleman’s agreement” or “a peace dropped down from heaven.” Francis criticized those religious who “imposed their own cultural models” on others, praying that “this never happen again in the Church” and that Christianity be taught in the manner that God desires, “in freedom and charity.”
While “gestures and visits can be important,” the pope underlined that “most words and deeds of reconciliation take place at the local level, in communities like this, where individuals and families travel side by side, day by day.”
After his speech and a brief exchanging of gifts, Francis recited the Our Father and blessed attendants. Exiting the church, he blessed a statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, also called the “Lily of the Mohawks,” who died in Canada and, in 2012, was the first Indigenous woman to become a saint.