Michael W. Higgins is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Senior Fellow at Massey College, and is currently writing a book on Pope Francis.
No previous papal visit has been like this. When John Paul II first landed on our shores in 1984, his cross-country journey was akin to a Roman triumph: massive, adoring crowds, church and state pomp at the highest level, festive accompanied sometimes by a populist frenzy. And that was media saturation.
When John Paul returned for a quick visit to Fort Simpson in 1987 to fulfill a promise made to the Indigenous peoples of the North, it was a quiet moment, a promise kept, without controversial. But when he arrived for World Youth Day in 2002 – his last visit – the excitement was muted. He was severely debilitated by illness: it was a clerical rock star event without an invigorating crowd-pleasing star.
Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” contrasts sharply with his predecessor’s three Canadian trips. And for me, the most important by far.
Pope Francis came to Canada because he had been invited at a critical time in ecclesiastical and national history; he came to Canada because he heard in his heart the cries of suffering and because he felt great humiliation and indignation. He came because he had at.
His stay in Canada – from July 24 to 29 – was also a pilgrimage of pain, a chronicle of remorse, a litany of shame. The history of the role of the Catholic Church in the administration of residential schools, its complicity in a national strategy to eradicate Aboriginal culture through the suppression of language and spirituality, its voluntary participation in a program of destruction of the family and intergenerational trauma, have all been before the courts for years. And unlike other churches, the Roman Catholic Church of Canada has dragged its feet on numerous accountability issues, defaulting on some of its financial commitments, circumventing Call to Action #58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission Report which specifically called on the Pope to come to Canada to apologize.
Pope Francis has arrived in Canada for his “penitential pilgrimage”. Here’s what to know about his papal visit
And then came the Kamloops Indian Residential School Unmarked Graves talk in the spring of 2021 and everything was changed – irrevocably.
Pope Francis’ stay in Canada has all the characteristics of his gift for a meaningful human encounter. He repeatedly apologized — though the debate over the completeness of that apology has not diminished — and he personalized interactions with Indigenous leaders by being present to them outside of script and protocol.
The two most powerful moments for me—and I’ve covered many papal occasions over the years—have been Pope Francis’ simple human gestures of commitment. Not the photo ops with the Prime Minister and Governor General, but kissing Alma Desjarlais’ hand and returning a child’s moccasins given to her in Rome by former chef Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, filling her promise to bring them back with him.
Expectations for this visit were high, and Pope Francis knew he was in a whirlwind of demands, conflicting political and religious pressures, and grueling schedules. But he successfully and deftly avoided being caught up in the politics swirling around him; he remained focused on the mission at hand, a mission of contrition and not easy appeasement. He came to ask for forgiveness, to remain firmly rooted in the path of reconciliation, to recognize the consequences that must follow from dealing with a deplorable legacy with its “burden of failure”.
Pope Francis knows the power of silence, especially its healing potential. Of course, his visit was in many ways a cascade of words and ceaseless activity – masses and other liturgies, speeches, formal conversations, homilies, baby kisses – but the solemn moments in a cemetery, the readiness for prayer in a wheelchair, the moments of recollection, define beyond words the pastoral approach of this Pope.
As outrageous as it may seem, given the uproar created around the demands to revoke papal bulls that have in fact been repealed long ago and given the reactions of many survivors and their families to an apology they deem insufficient, Pope Francis has remained focused on creating an outpouring of tenderness . He knew, as Flannery O’Connor, a deeply Catholic Southern Gothic novelist, knew that when tenderness among Christians is but a theory “cut off from the person of Christ … its logical result is terror”. To be tender is to be responsible, to be present to “the other”, to venerate “the other”.
Only a true Christian witness can counter the culture of contempt that marks our residential school heritage. Pope Francis knows this in his bones as much as he knows that a true pilgrimage of reparation must be born among Canadian Catholics – clerics and lay people – and that the Bishop of Rome is only one player in a historic deployment of truth and reconciliation.
Keep your opinions sharp and informed. Receive the Opinion newsletter. register today.