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Gerard O’ConnellJuly 27, 2022
Pope Francis visits the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage site in Alberta, Canada, Tuesday, July 26, 2022. Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for the abuses committed by Catholic missionaries in the country's notorious residential schools. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

Pope Francis finished the first stage of his penitential pilgrimage to Canada last evening at Lac Ste. Anne, which the Nakota Sioux originally called “the Lake of God.” Accompanied by the sound of drums, he came in search of healing from God, just as Indigenous Peoples have done for centuries.

He arrived on July 26, the feast of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, who is greatly revered by Indigenous Peoples in Canada. Every year, Indigenous pilgrims come to the lake by the thousands for the feast day.

Vatican organizers had planned for Francis to travel to the lake by golf cart from the nearby shrine, established and managed by the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, less than a 10-minute walk away. But the pilgrim pope opted instead to be pushed in a wheelchair to the lake, accompanied by chiefs of the Indigenous Peoples.

The organizers had arranged for him to go to a platform and bless a bowl of water taken from the lake. But after reciting a prayer and blessing the water, Francis insisted on being rolled in the wheelchair to the edge of the lake. His aides then withdrew and he sat there, eyes closed, deep in prayer while the hundreds of Indigenous pilgrims who had come for the occasion watched in silence and prayed, too. The image of him, all alone on the side of the lake, imploring God for healing, will surely remain as an iconic image of this penitential pilgrimage.

The image of Pope Francis, all alone on the side of the lake, imploring God for healing, will surely remain as an iconic image of this penitential pilgrimage.

When he finished praying, he first blessed the chiefs, cardinals and bishops who had accompanied him with the water from the lake. Then, as he was wheeled to the shrine, he blessed the Indigenous pilgrims who had come to these sacred waters.

At the shrine, he delivered a profound and inspiring homily in Spanish, which was simultaneously translated into English for the congregation. He prayed to God, saying: “In this blessed place, where harmony and peace reign, we present to you the disharmony of our experiences, the terrible effects of colonization, the indelible pain of so many families, grandparents and children. Help us to be healed of our wounds.”

Imploring the help of Jesus, he said:

We know that this requires effort, care and concrete actions on our part; but we also know that we cannot do this alone. We rely on you and on the intercession of your mother and your grandmother. Yes, because mothers and grandmothers help to heal the wounds of our hearts.

The first Latin American pope reminded the Indigenous People in Canada that “at the dramatic time of the conquest, Our Lady of Guadalupe transmitted the true faith to the Indigenous People, speaking their own language and clothed in their own garments, without violence or imposition.”

He concluded his homily with these words:

Dear Indigenous brothers and sisters, I have come here as a pilgrim also to say to you how precious you are to me and to the church. I want the church to be intertwined with you, as tightly woven as the threads of the colored bands that many of you wear. May the Lord help us to move forward in the healing process, towards an ever more healthy and renewed future. I believe that this is also the wish of your grandmothers and your grandfathers. May the grandparents of Jesus, Saints Joachim and Anne, bless us on our journey.

They applauded with passion and beat their ceremonial drums as Francis bade farewell and drove back to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Edmonton, where he has been staying since his arrival on July 24.

Earlier in the day, he celebrated Mass in the Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton for a congregation of 50,000 Indigenous and local people. Before presiding at Mass, he drove around the stadium in the popemobile and kissed a number of babies and very young children, to the joy of all present.

The first Latin American pope reminded the Indigenous People in Canada that “at the dramatic time of the conquest, Our Lady of Guadalupe transmitted the true faith to the Indigenous People.”

During the Mass, he delivered a profoundly spiritual reflection, in which he spoke about grandparents—theirs, his and those of Jesus. The homily could be described as autobiographical, drawing on his personal experience with his own grandmother, Rosa, who so influenced his life of faith. In the homily, he linked in a masterly way his own life experience with his grandmother with the deepest traditions of the Indigenous Peoples, who revere their grandparents and elders.

Indeed, giving full value to the traditions of the Indigenous Peoples has been one of the recurring elements in his talks during this penitential pilgrimage. While the colonizing mentality sought to discard, erode and eliminate the culture, identity and traditions of the Indigenous Peoples through a process of assimilation into the culture of Europe, Francis is doing exactly the opposite. He is giving recognition to their culture and traditions and inviting the Catholic community in Canada to do likewise, as an important part of the journey of healing and reconciliation.

Pope Francis began that journey last Sunday with his arrival at the airport, where he kissed the hand of an Indigenous woman, Alma Sejarlls. She told me she was “deeply honored” by that gesture. The following day at the Pow-Wow Park, sitting among the chiefs of these Indigenous Peoples, he humbly asked their forgiveness for all they had suffered from the residential school system, in which the church played a major role. He made what an editorial in The Globe and Mail described as “a sincere, specific and strategic apology.” He asked forgiveness, saying “I am sorry,” with an evident sincerity that drew strong applause from the Indigenous chiefs, survivors, knowledge keepers and intergenerational survivors in the audience, many of whom were in tears.

In my view, if he continues with this physical energy, we can expect to see him in Kyiv sometime in August or September.

They applauded again when he endorsed their appeal for “truth telling” about the fate of the more than 4,000 missing children who attended and died at the residential schools. He kissed the hand of Chief Wilton Littlechild, who placed a chief’s headdress on the head of the pope. Several chiefs have expressed satisfaction and happiness at his apology. Many are still digesting it, while others have yet to come on board. As Phil Fontaine, a longtime national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said: “We will never forget, but we must forgive. And forgiveness doesn’t mean we are lesser people.”

When Francis met with Indigenous leaders at the Vatican in March, Elder Fred Kelly gave the pope the name “Wabbi Ginew,” which means “White Eagle.” He later explained that “in my vision [the name] flies with the white dove of Christianity.” Pope Francis has now been given a chief’s headdress and an Indigenous name.

True to that name, Francis is moving like an eagle on this trip, notwithstanding his mobility problems. He is visibly happy to be here and is finding ways to overcome his physical limitations, including when he reached out to the crowd outside the church of the Sacred Heart in Edmonton from his wheelchair, much to the alarm of his security detail.

“He made us run for our money,” an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police told me. In my view, if he continues with this physical energy, we can expect to see him in Kyiv sometime in August or September.

Pope Francis’ apology came at the beginning of his penitential pilgrimage, and it is being generally well received. He will unfold other aspects of that apology, in his search for healing and reconciliation, through statements and gestures during the next two stages of that pilgrimage, first in Quebec, where he goes on Wednesday, and then to Iqaluit on Friday morning, July 29, before returning to Rome.

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