Today it was announced that Pope Francis intends to visit Canada, in response to an invitation from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB). The statement from the Vatican reads as follows:
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has invited the Holy Father to make an apostolic journey to Canada, also in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples. His Holiness has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course.
The CCCB released a statement as well, noting that “In anticipation of this visit, the planned delegation of Indigenous survivors, Elders, knowledge keepers and youth will travel to the Holy See, where they will have the opportunity to speak to Pope Francis about the timing, focus, and themes in preparation for his future pilgrimage to Canada.”
For me, as a Canadian, the announcement of this visit brings feelings of both relief and excited anticipation. Those who do not live in Canada may not appreciate how deeply the issue of Catholic involvement in the residential school system for Indigenous children has affected popular opinion regarding the Church. A national conversation about the residential schools—one fraught with pain, shame, anger, and in some cases denial—has been going on since the early 1990s, but it became central and inescapable in 2015, with the publication of the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. The report was accompanied by 94 calls to action, of which number 58 is arguably the best known:
We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada.
For years this urgent appeal cast a shadow over Catholicism in Canada. In February of this year, I published a piece in Where Peter Is in which I examined the Church’s involvement in the residential school system and joined the call for the pope to offer an official apology. At the time, it felt like the question of a papal visit and apology might remain unresolved indefinitely. Then, at the end of May 2021, reports emerged about the shocking discovery of unmarked children’s graves near what used to be the Kamloops Indian Residential School. The time for hoping that the past would stay in the past was over.
I have never doubted that Pope Francis is sympathetic to the suffering of the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Although at this time we do not know if he intends to make an official apology, we can be certain his visit will open new possibilities for dialogue. As a Canadian Catholic who has struggled a great deal in reconciling my love of the Church with its role in the residential school system, I can only say thank you, Holy Father!
D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.