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By Fannie Dionne

After having apologized in Rome in April 2022 before the Indigenous delegations, Pope Francis will visit various Indigenous communities in the territory that is now called Canada from July 24 to 29, 2022. This will be an opportunity “once again to listen to and dialogue with Indigenous peoples, to express his heartfelt closeness and to address the impact of colonization and the participation of the Catholic Church in the operation of residential schools throughout Canada,” explains the website for the visit, whose theme is “Walking Together.”

To put the visit in context, we interviewed Father Peter Bisson, SJ, Assistant to the Jesuit Provincial of Canada for Indigenous Relations.

Jesuit Father Peter Bisson

What do you see as the most important moments of the Pope’s visit? What should we keep in mind?

First, it should be noted that the Pope is visiting Indigenous peoples, not Canada.

The most important moment is the first event in the community of Maskwacis, during the morning of July 25, on the site of a former residential school. This is where the Pope will offer the Church’s apology. In addition, he will participate in major events, such as those at Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, Sainte Anne de Beaupré in Quebec, and the celebration of the mass at Commonwealth Stadium in downtown Edmonton. As we saw during the Pope’s meeting with the Indigenous delegations in Rome, it is the atmosphere and personal attitude of Francis that will have a significant impact.

During this week, it will be important to listen not only to the Pope’s talks (because his words will be carefully chosen) but also to his informal comments and his reactions, as well as to the responses of the Indigenous people and the attitude of the crowds. It should be noted that non-Catholics are of course also welcome to attend the events.

Finally, we can see the integration of Indigenous ceremonies into the Catholic rites, especially the mass.

What is the expected impact of this visit?

After the event in Rome, I began to see the emergence of new energy: I hope that after the Pope’s visit at the end of July, we will see something similar. Not everyone will be happy about the Pope’s visit or his words, his messages, but we will probably see a much greater flow of energy.

I personally hope that the leaders of the Catholic Church in Canada, especially our bishops, will take advantage of this event and the Pope’s efforts in order to really strengthen the work of reconciliation between the Church and Indigenous peoples.

How do you think Indigenous Catholics perceive this visit?

I think that they see it in a positive light. This is a significant moment for Indigenous Catholics, and a time of healing, too, though not for all. It is important to remember that the Pope can apologize, but forgiveness is not automatic, it is a free choice.

But just the fact that the wounds are recognized by someone as important as the Pope means a lot: it is a multi-layered recognition of the Indigenous experience.

Francis’s visit is also a source of great encouragement and support for Indigenous Catholics.

Why is the Pope’s presence in this territory important? How does it fit into the context of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission?

It is important for the Pope to apologize on Indigenous territory, in front of Indigenous people, and not just in Rome. To do this in Indigenous contexts, to really come to their homes, to have ceremonies with Indigenous people, is very important and it creates bonds. It will be important for our Catholic leaders in Canada to continue what the Pope begins.

The Pope’s visit is in response to Call 58 of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, even though the visit took longer than requested to actually materialize. I had the impression that the Pope was very open to receiving an invitation. The reason for the delay was that an invitation from the bishops as a collective body was needed. The bishops were unable to find the right moment to invite the Pope until now. Many may say that they waited too long.

How do you see the relationship between the Church and the Indigenous peoples in this territory? How might it evolve?

My hope is that the relationship between the Church and the Indigenous peoples be one of partnership and equality. It is going to take a long time, though. For example, not everyone in Church is comfortable with the integration of Indigenous traditions into the mass.

From a theological, spiritual, Catholic point of view, we must also genuinely recognize the presence of God in Indigenous spiritualities and ceremonies.

And personally, I think we really need the help of Indigenous people for two reasons. For Indigenous people, spirituality is part of everyday life, whereas for non-Indigenous people, in the Church or elsewhere, spirituality is not obvious. So to really promote the spiritual dimension of life, I think we need the help of Indigenous people.

Second, in matters of ecology, especially in implementing the initiative of Laudato Si’, we need Indigenous people, for whom creation is an integral part of one’s relationship with God and with others. Non-Indigenous people in the West need to see creation not only as a context for salvation, but also as a fundamental aspect of our relationship to God and to each other.

That said, Indigenous individuals may or may not forgive us. They are free to choose. What is important for the Church is that we do the necessary spiritual work—on ourselves, on our unexamined attitudes, our prejudices, our blind spots.

How can people learn about Indigenous spiritualities? How can we create meaningful connections with Indigenous people?

The simplest and most profound answer is to get to know Indigenous people through personal relationships, friendships, and collaboration. It is through these connections that we are transformed.

We need to move from apologies to the work of transforming relationships and power dynamics in order to achieve genuine partnership. That is why the theme of the Pope’s visit is “Walking Together”: it is both a goal and a means. It sounds nice, but making this ideal a reality is not easy.

Is the Pope’s visit related to ecology as well? The logo for the visit, created by Shaun Vincent, is composed of animals and plants. 

I don’t think that ecology is an explicit part of the interaction between the Pope and Indigenous groups, but as I said earlier, we need the help of Indigenous people and their spiritual gifts to really promote an integral ecological conversion.

Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, (center left) speaks at a panel about boarding school history alongside Indigenous partners. Photo: Michael Swan of Catholic Register

How have Jesuits been involved in the process of reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples in Canada?

We first had our own reconciliation between the Jesuits and Indigenous peoples. The role of the Jesuits in the process of reconciliation between the Church in Canada and the Indigenous people is, I would say, an exemplary one. With some exceptions, the bishops as a group have been very slow to really begin a process of reconciliation. The Jesuits have probably been an example, though not necessarily an example to follow. But we have apologized, we have paid compensation, and our relationships with some Indigenous groups have been deepened and broadened as a result. Apologizing and trying to reconcile will be painful, but it is worth it.

The Pope will also meet with a Jesuit delegation during his visit. How would you describe the spirit of this meeting?

A spirit of brotherhood, I hope, because he is also a Jesuit, and he does not want to forget his spiritual family. That’s why wherever he travels he always makes an effort to visit the Jesuits in that place. I find that very consoling.

Will Ignatian spirituality support the Pope in the spirit of this visit?

Probably, especially in discernment and in having a positive view of the world. Obviously, there is a lot of distress and evil in the world, but underneath it all, there is also the love of God. It gives us the confidence to move forward—from the apology and the recognition of our collective guilt to the desire to change.

Some helpful resources

Fr. Peter Bisson reflects about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Listening to Indigenous Voices through the Jesuit Forum

Apologizigng Along with Pope Francis 

Indigenous Canada Course

Our Lady of Guadalupe Circle’s resources 

Educational resources from the CCCB

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