QUEBEC CITY—Here is a parable you won’t find in the Bible.
Three Innu — two women and a man — sit beneath the stunning twin spires of the Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré Basilica near Quebec City. They’ve come to see Pope Francis, to attend a mass meant to atone for the church’s role in residential school abuses.
They arrived days before from the village of Pessamit, 340 kilometres to the north. Like the hundreds of others in the congregation — most Indigenous — they woke in morning darkness to get good seats.
If they crane their necks past a stone column, they can see the altar, maybe 50 metres ahead. Then a church volunteer arrives, promising better spots in a pew up front.
They trustingly follow, but for one reason or another the promised spots don’t exist.
And when they return, their old seats have been claimed by a horde of journalists. (This reporter was, for the record, an uncomfortable member of said horde.)
An Indigenous volunteer intervenes, her frustration quick to flare.
“This space is for the Innu nation,” she says. “They were here first.”
An RCMP officer is called in to convene.
“The space is for journalists,” he says. Sorry, but rules are rules.
A resolution is eventually found. The journalists squeeze in a bit tighter and make room for the agreeable Innu trio, one of whom is jokingly indignant, “I came to receive the Pope’s apology!”
She thereupon pulls out a pearl pink set of rosary beads, blesses herself and begins to pray.
The incident, which occurred on the fifth of Pope Francis’s six-day “penitential pilgrimage” to this country, seemed to encapsulate as well as any the uneasy state of play that the 85-year-old Argentine Pope Francis discovered in Canada.
He crossed the Atlantic to apologize for the role Catholics played in running residential schools and found himself submerged in half a millennium of history, not all of it as nice and kind as many Canadians like to think.
There were promises that didn’t materialize. Protests that went unheard. Dangerously frayed nerves. An ever-uneasy balance moving forward.
It’s that last element Canadians are left with now that Francis has concluded his papal visit with a stop in Iqaluit and returned to Rome and the myriad other crises and commitments on his and the world’s agenda.
The Pope has said sorry to Indigenous Peoples at the Vatican. He’s said sorry on Canadian soil.
He has acknowledged that there was spiritual, physical and psychological abuse. Only on the second-to-last day, and facing a fierce criticism, did he find the words that many Indigenous residential school victims have had the courage to say themselves: “sexual abuse.”
Francis alternately blamed “many members” of the church, “so many Christians,” and “some believers” for the horrors that occurred. He condemned the role played by “local Catholic institutions” and referred to the “burning questions” facing “this pilgrim church in Canada.”
But he did not — or could not, or would not — admit clearly to the guilt or responsibility of the powerful and wealthy multinational institution over which he presides: the Roman Catholic Church.
With so much reluctance and so many parsed words, so much unresolved pain and so little punishment doled out, how do Canada and its Indigenous people move forward with the healing and reconciliation that has been demanded and promised?
Maybe it was predictable that the pontiff had only one true clear answer to this question: to double down on the divine.
“Our own efforts are not enough to achieve healing and reconciliation,” he said, apologizing to thousands of Indigenous people and residential school survivors in Maskwacis, Alta., home of the Ermineskin First Nation. “We need God’s grace.”
Repeating this in Quebec, the soft-spoken Spanish-speaking Francis paraphrased the Gospel of John, but with an Old Testament tone: “There is only one path, a sole way: It is the way of Jesus.”
That message may still resonate in the hearts of Indigenous Catholics — a declining but still-sizeable population that has managed to hate the sins committed in residential schools without casting off the faith imparted to them by the sinners.
For a younger generation, though, the Pope’s command is an echo of the conversion by missionaries entrusted, first by European colonizers, then by the Canadian government, with the job of killing off of Indigenous culture, language and beliefs — the raison d’être of the residential school system.
“We have never been allowed to be as we are. We’ve never been allowed to practise our ways without the fear of consequence — very serious consequence,” said Sarain Fox, 34, of the Batchewana First Nation, near Sault Ste. Marie.
Fox and her cousin, Chelsea Brunelle, stood at the altar of the basilica in Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, where Francis had arrived for a reconciliation mass with Indigenous people. Together, they unfurled a protest banner calling on him to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery — a legal principle founded upon 15th century papal edicts that gave European explorers free rein to colonize and exploit non-Christian lands.
In an interview afterwards, Fox acknowledged the space that Christianity continues to occupy in Indigenous communities, and the need to respect those who still put their faith in a God whose earthly servants failed them utterly.
“But the real thing here is that, there’s no easy way to say this, there’s no way not to just be blunt about it: Our people are only Catholics because of forced assimilation,” she said, drawing the line between Francis’s faith-based path to reconciliation this week and the free passes written for Christopher Columbus in 1493 by Francis’s predecessor, Pope Alexander VI — a man said to enjoy God’s graces, earthly wealth and the pleasure of numerous mistresses.
“The doctrine is the document that says we are savages, and if we want to engage in reconciliation, the church needs to admit that they were wrong,” Fox said.
“They can’t just say ‘sorry.’ They need to say, ‘We were wrong, Indigenous people are not savages, you are a sovereign nation,’ and we need to reinstate sovereignty in a real way in order to enact that.”
There was very real hope that the liberal-minded, progressive Pope Francis would arrive in Canada and, with one grand gesture, atone.
If not for the sins of the past five missionary centuries in this part of the world, then, at least, for the abuses that have dominated the Canadian political agenda for more than a decade and prompted former prime minister Stephen Harper to apologize in the House of Commons in 2008 for leaving Indigenous people to carry “the burden” of the residential school experience.
“The burden,” Harper said, “is properly ours as a government, and as a country.”
If Pope Francis’s apology is to mean anything, he and the Catholic Church must now contribute to lifting that burden off Indigenous shoulders.
After watching the elderly pontiff being wheeled across Canada, of seeing up close his monumental struggle to ascend the steps of the popemobile, it seems legitimate to ask whether this man has the strength to carry the Catholic Church’s burden for residential schools.
Pope Francis the Frail — hobbled by sciatica and knee problems — is not the same Pope Francis who emerged from the papal conclave in 2013.
Not the one who delighted Christendom and beyond with his prosaic turns of phrase, his rejection of papal glitz, his refusal to cast judgment on homosexuals, his attempts to shake up the Vatican elite — the curia — and his revolutionary mission to shift the Catholic Church closer to being a champion of the miserable and marginalized, an agency in the image of Christ.
This isn’t to say that Francis’s philosophies have drifted or foundered.
In his public comments this week, he has championed the cause of refugees, the homeless, the sick and elderly. At La Citadelle, the Governor General’s Quebec City residence, he spoke of “the radical injustice that taints our world.”
“It is scandalous that the well-being generated by economic development does not benefit all the sectors of society,” he said.
While there were no real grand gestures, there were still several small moments — easily missed — that took on an outsized significance, in part due to Francis’s physical state.
For Mark McGowan, a University of Toronto professor and expert in the history of the Catholic Church, one occurred Monday, when Francis greeted an elderly survivor in a yellow shawl by kissing her hand.
“The protocol for meeting a bishop or the Pope would be for the person to kiss (their) ring. Here he grabbed her hands to kiss them. That was Francis demonstrating that he was there for them.”
The more accessible moments of vitality came when a genuine smile rose on the Pope’s face, when his eyes lit up. True to form, these moments occurred when he found himself in close contact with people.
Touring the shrine at Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré, mothers handed over their babies to the papal bodyguards who passed over the infants for a kiss from Francis’s lips. Being wheeled down to the supposedly healing waters of Lac Ste. Anne, a pilgrimage site, he seemed to take energy from the crowd and the beating of the drum.
And when he arrived at the shores, McGowan noted that the Pope insisted the footrests of his chair be raised and that his feet touch the ground — an easily overlooked acknowledgment that he was on sacred land.
But small gestures will not be enough to see through the task of healing and reconciling.
“Personally, I don’t care about the Pope’s apology, and I don’t care that he’s been here,” said Six Nations of the Grand River Chief Mark Hill, which was home to the longest-running residential school, the Anglican-run Mohawk Institute.
“What I care about is how we’re going to heal as a nation.”
The pontiff pledged that his church would work to promote Indigenous rights and “respond in a fitting way” to the recommendations of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission report into residential schools.
He said the Vatican and local Catholic communities were committed to promoting and respecting Indigenous cultures, customs, languages and educational processes.
But something in the stilted delivery of the papal messages, in the way that it took criticisms — no less than from former TRC commissioner, senator and judge Murry Sinclair — to push the Vatican’s apology forward, in the refusal to take responsibility at the highest levels of the church, gave this whole papal pilgrimage a political feel — as if the church was conducting an outwardly polite, but inwardly bruising, re-election campaign.
“When you read from a piece of paper and you’re so scripted that you’re watching out for the legal grounds and so forth, what sentiment is there in that?” Chief Hill asked. “There wasn’t enough concrete behind the statement or the apology. If you want to make real change, it’s time to get out of this colonial way of thinking.”
Odd as it may seem, Francis said much the same thing in one of his final events — a charge to Canada’s Catholic ground forces in Quebec City.
“Never again can the Christian community allow itself to be infected by the idea that one culture is superior to others,” he told a Quebec City cathedral packed with people of the cloth.
Bishops and priests are service-industry workers, not power brokers, he said.
“This is where we must start. You are key figures and builders of a different church: humble, meek, merciful.”
There are many reasons to hope that Francis can usher in change. There are just as many reasons to doubt that this is possible.
The top-down approach of the papal-visit organizers that forced the Assembly of First Nations to publish a letter on the eve of Francis’s arrival to complain about the lack of Indigenous consultation.
The part of the Edmonton mass spoken in Latin — a trigger for anyone who attended a residential school prior to the 1965 reforms made in the Second Vatican Council.
The tears that welled up in the eyes of Global Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly — a representative of the just-as-guilty federal government — as she hugged and kissed and shared a whispered greeting with an Indigenous woman at La Citadelle and the contrast with the Pope’s comparatively standoffish, black-robed posse of cardinals and bishops, who did not stray from their front-row seats.
And yet these are the men Francis has entrusted with the changes that have yet to be revealed to the Indigenous people who have been waiting all too long.
“Really, the burden now rests with us. Part of that is also about being way better listeners than what we have been in the past, and (Francis) kept talking about listening,” McGowan said.
“If Francis is truly Francis, he’s listening and absorbing and pondering these things, and that’s what we have to do. We have to listen to the Indigenous voices.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24-hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.