QUEBEC CITY—On that mild March evening in 2013, with tens of thousands jammed into St. Peter’s Square, all eyes looked anxiously toward the central balcony of the Basilica.
Who would emerge?
And when Jorge Mario Bergoglio stepped outside, from behind the velvet curtains, a murmur swept across the crowd, building into a crescendo. Who is that?
Pope Francis, who’d taken his papal name from Francis of Assisi, for the saint’s gentleness and humility, for the Franciscan order’s plainness.
The first Pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit to be elevated to Pontiff. An outlier, scarcely mentioned over the two days of the papal conclave as cardinals debated their choice, through five ballots, for successor to Pope Benedict XVI, who had shockingly resigned from the leadership of the Roman Catholic Church.
From his initial public remarks as Vicar of Christ, Francis made clear that he wanted a church for the poor. And on his first morning as Pope, in what immediately assumed folklore status, Francis stopped by the modest Vatican City hotel where he’d been lodging — to pay his bill.
Nearly a decade later, the burden of papacy has clearly worn on the now-85-year-old mortal, psychically and physically. The ligaments in his knees are shot; he can’t stand for long, uses a wheelchair and the Popemobile. His voice isn’t as strong as it sounded on that March night. Travel is difficult.
But he’s here, in Canada, on Wednesday flying from Edmonton to Quebec City for a formal reception at the Citadel with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, plenty of the pomp that he doesn’t like on display. Then later, at pontifical ease, he re-emerged to wind through a large crowd amassed on the Plains of Abraham aboard that popemobile, blessing babies and clearly enjoying the pope-about.
Here, on Canadian soil, because he’d promised. Here, on Canadian soil, at the beseeching of Indigenous leaders. Here to fulfil some of the directives for healing as contained in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations. Here, doubtless with much political currency expended by the federal government. Here, most of all, to apologize and beg forgiveness for the sins of the church that dispossessed First Nations, Métis and Inuit people — who were on this land first, long before it was “discovered.” And who have carried, for generations, the traumatic legacy of a residential school system designed to obliterate them.
Francis has been humble. Yet some clearly desire more humbling. Of the church if not necessarily the Pope, although there’s palpably growing discontent and dissatisfaction with what Francis has said. More critically, what he hasn’t.
He hasn’t rescinded the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery — the papal bulls that sanctified appropriation and colonization of lands in the New World, which was the timberwork of developing nations around the planet, not just Canada, at the same time that it condemned Indigenous populations.
He hasn’t said the word “genocide.” The Truth and Reconciliation commission has characterized what happened to Indigenous societies as “cultural genocide.”
He hasn’t made reference to sexual abuse at the schools and by priests.
He hasn’t committed the church to returning the important residential school records in its possession, nor Indigenous relics.
He hasn’t held the church, as an institutional entity, responsible, instead speaking of Christian individuals who inflicted so much harm.
All that has been thus far absent — with no indication that the Pope will go there at all on this pilgrimage of penance — has been understandably seized upon, particularly by academics and theologians and a distinctly hostile swath of commentators, even as tribal chiefs have been remarkably gracious. The choir of dissent and disappointment has grown more feverishly loud, to the point of toxic, over the past three days. They want no less, I think, than mortification of the church’s flesh.
The church is, in fact, an absolute monarchy, the Pope its sovereign. A pope has the absolute power to issue — and reverse — edicts. In practice, however, it’s a vast bureaucracy with immense powers invested in the Curia. And while Francis might indeed want to go further than he has, he must also contend with a recalcitrant, deeply conservative Holy See that is aghast by how far he’s gone.
It fell upon Trudeau on Wednesday, in one of his finest moments as prime minister, to speak truth to that power.
“In residential schools, these children were alone, isolated and in pain and sorrow, far from their families and communities. Even worse, stripped of their language, their culture, their identity. Since 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation commission’s final report, the First Nations, the Inuit and the Métis have been calling on the Pope to apologize to survivors, to their families and to their communities.
“To apologize for the role that the Roman Catholic Church as an institution played in the abuse — the spiritual abuse, cultural abuse, emotional abuse, physical abuse and sexual abuse — of Indigenous children in church-run residentials schools.”
This week’s events, Trudeau added, would “not have been possible without courage and perseverance of the survivors who shared their painful memories and experiences, including directly with the Holy Father himself.”
He didn’t soft-soap it. Though neither, frankly, has the Pope.
“This week, you recognized the abuses experienced at residential schools that resulted in cultural destruction, loss of life and ongoing traumas lived by Indigenous peoples in every region of the country,” Trudeau added. “As Your Holiness has said, begging pardon is not the end of the matter, it is the start of it, the first step.”
Survivors and their descendants must be at the centre of everything — or anything — that happens next. But Francis can’t make it happen right now, right here, by papal fiat. It’s extraordinary that he’s driven the apology, the accountability, even this far, though the reiteration of “I’m sorry” — from Alberta to Quebec to Iqaluit on Friday — hasn’t risen to the hopes of many.
Waiting for the Pope to arrive at a flagellation of the church, of Catholicism, during this trip can only lead to despondency and belligerent rhetoric.
For his part, on this day, Francis did nudge closer, I think, while name-checking everything from the environment to homelessness to war-mongering countries to, goodness, cancel culture.
“I think of, above all of, the policies of assimilation and disenfranchisement which also involved the residential school system and which harmed many Indigenous families by undermining their families, their culture and their world view.
“In that deplorable system, promoted by the government authorities at the time, which separated so many children from their families, different local Catholic institutions played a part. For this reason, I express my deep shame and sorrow and, together with the bishops of this country, I renew my request for forgiveness for the wrong done by so many Christians to the Indigenous Peoples. I beg forgiveness.”
He also made an important point: “The Christian faith has played an essential role in shaping the highest ideals of Canada, characterized by the desire to build a better country for all of its peoples.”
Amidst the grief and shame, the wounds ripped open anew by the trauma of remembering — as so many elders and knowledge-keepers have publicly done this week — we’d do well to accept the sincerity of contrition. Instead of weaving for the Pope a crown of thorns.