I don’t usually talk about current Church events in my Weekly column, but recently I have felt drawn to think about and follow Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage to Canada. I admit that I have only been reading a few articles here and there about his time visiting our neighbor to the north, but I soon hope to sit down for a while to watch some videos, read his homily transcripts, and see how the indigenous peoples of Canada received his visit. Pope Francis has been very clear about the reason for his visit to Canada this week. He is there to apologize for the ways in which the Catholic Church historically mistreated various indigenous peoples, especially in the administration of boarding schools in which native language and dress was prohibited. Recently, graveyards of students have been discovered, probably the remains of students who passed away from illness while studying, with no funds to return their bodies home.
When I first heard about the Pope’s plan to travel to Canada, I was surprised because it didn’t seem like the Catholic Church was the only or even the primary perpetrator of these sins. The government paid for these schools, and other churches and organizations also administered similar schools. But, these facts do not excuse Catholics from the duty to do what we can to correct injustices of the past. The Church leads the world in many ways, and offering authentic apologies is another way for the Church to lead the world down the path of reconciliation. After Pope Francis met with Canadian Indigenous leaders in Rome, he said, “any truly effective process of healing requires concrete action.” Pope Francis’ concrete action in this case is to humbly ask for forgiveness with sorrow. Although the wounds may still feel fresh to many indigenous people, it is hard to ignore the authenticity and love that Pope Francis carries in his demeanor and words. Pope Francis is an 85-year-old man, and to make the journey to Canada, mostly in a wheelchair, is a striking sign of his authenticity.
When a Pope visits a certain place, the ripple effect of those events lasts for generations. My first time seeing the pope in person (at least I’m assuming that I saw him, as I was four years old) was when Pope John Paul II came to St. Louis in 1999. Recently some parishioners told me that they were at the same event in 1999 with Pope John Paul II. In 1993, Pope John Paul II had also visited Denver. Although I wasn’t born yet, I have heard that the Pope’s time in Denver impacted an entire generation of young Catholics. His visit contributed to the re-opening of their seminary, the establishment of the Augustine Institute, and several other evangelistic initiatives. In 2015, Pope Francis came to Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia to celebrate the canonization of St. Junipero Serra. I was there with my seminary at the canonization Mass. Although these events are only a very small part of what popes do in their ministry, the impact of their visit reverberates far beyond the few days spent there. I hope that Pope Francis’ time in Canada is fruitful. In a way, he represents every Catholic around the world, and he shows us how we should respond to sin: not with denials or cover-ups, but with humility and love for the one who has been hurt by the sin.
On Monday, Pope Francis concluded a homily with the following words. May we all seek true reconciliation in our lives, always through the Cross.
Dear friends, the reconciliation brought by Christ was no agreement to preserve outward peace, a sort of gentlemen’s agreement meant to keep everyone happy. Nor was it a peace that dropped down from heaven, imposed from on high, or by assimilating the other. The Apostle Paul tells us that Jesus reconciles by bringing together, by making two distant groups one: one reality, one soul, one people. And how does he do that? Through the cross (cf. Eph 2:14). Jesus reconciles us with one another on the cross, on the “tree of life”, as the ancient Christians loved to call it.