Walking Together, Synodally. A Reflection on Pope Francis’ Apostolic Journey to Canada

Pope Francis is making an Apostolic Journey to Canada from June 24-30, 2022 with the main goal of expressing his closeness with the Indigenous People of Canada – a group that has suffered much under the threats of colonialisation and assimilation. This assimilation was pushed forward by the government with the implementation of residential schools which took children away from their homes, deprived them of expressing and living their Indigenous culture. Furthermore, many were abused and survived traumatic expriences. It is even more unfortunate that a majority of these schools were run by Catholic institutions, many of them, religious orders.

This past spring, representatives of Indigenous Peoples of Canada were received by the Holy Father, Pope Francis, in the Vatican over a course of several days where they spoke to him from their authentic experiences and trauma they have endured through these residential schools, and deprivation of cultural expression. Pope Francis listened carefully, and addressed them on the last day as a group from his heart, and apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools, asking for pardon and forgiveness from the Indigenous peoples:

I feel shame – sorrow and shame – for the role that a number of Catholics, particularly those with educational responsibilities, have had in all these things that wounded you, in the abuses you suffered and in the lack of respect shown for your identity, your culture and even your spiritual values. All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon. Clearly, the content of the faith cannot be transmitted in a way contrary to the faith itself: Jesus taught us to welcome, love, serve and not judge; it is a frightening thing when, precisely in the name of the faith, counter-witness is rendered to the Gospel.

Address of His Holiness Pope Francis: Meeting with Representatives of Indigenous Peoples in Canada (April 1, 2022)

Pope Francis recognized that a terrible harm that was done to the Indigenous Peoples: The Faith of the Church, centred around the Gospel of Jesus Christ was used not used to bring Jesus Christ to the people, but rather abused, and used as a means of justification for wrong actions and wrong principles. These wrong actions has caused indescribable pain, sorrow, and trauma to people who should have received love, care and affirmed of their dignity through the Gospel and a true encounter with Jesus.

In this ongoing process of Truth and Reconciliation in Canada, as pastor, Pope Francis has recognized the urgency to be with his flock, and in particular, the most vulnerable, those who have been harmed in various ways, to assure them of his own accompaniment and the Church’s accompaniment. The chapters of the past cannot be re-written, but the question this Papal Visit proposes is, how can we all “Walk Together” forward in truth, reconciliation and hope?

This theme of “Walking Together” is fitting as the Church journeys towards the Synod on Synodality – journeying together. Throughout the synodal process, all are called to encounter – listen – discern. Pope Francis is being a role model for the Church, especially for the Church in Canada on what it means to be a synodal Church. This whole process of Truth and Reconciliation with the Catholic Church and Indigenous Peoples has been a synodal process. There has been encounters with the Church with the Indigenous, there has been much listening especially on the part of the Holy Father and the bishops during the delegations, and now there is the discernment portion which is ongoing. I hope that this Papal Visit with reinforce the verbs of encounter and listening, but also prompt further discernment.

Pope Francis will almost certainly reiterate, and perhaps expand on the apology he made April 1. He will have many encounters with Indigenous Peoples, and also with Catholics throughout Canada, particularly in Edmonton, Québec City and Iqaluit. He will likely continue to listen to more testimonies of Indigenous Peoples. However, the biggest question is what comes next after the Papal Visit? It is my hope that Pope Francis’ “pentiential pilgrimage“will not only prompt further reflection on this ongoing Truth and Reconciliation, but more importantly concrete action on the part of the Catholic Church, the Government and Canadians so to better accompany Indigenous Peoples.

I think there is a temptation to instituionalize matters. By that, I mean that sometimes, items are done for show to the public, so that the public may know that “Yes! XYZ is being taken care of!” but nothing follows through. The same goes with the synodal process – there might be a temptation to encounter and listen for show, to put on some facade. Yet, instituionalized listening, institutionalized encounters defeats the point of any synodal process, they are ingenuine. True encounter and true listening must lead to discernment under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, which then ultimately leads to action. This is what I hope Pope Francis’ Papal Visit will achieve – not only will we be able to proceed further to genuine truth and reconciliation with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. I envision something that goes beyond the $30-million Indigenous Reconciliation Fund, but perhaps a program that works with Indigenous partners to raise the standard among Indigenous communities, which can be attributed in part to the effects of residential schools on later generations of Indigenous Peoples.

As a student an undergraduate student enrolled in the Ethics, Society & Law program, I have been made aware of effects of colonialization through some of the courses that I have taken. That, along with my understanding of the Christian history via my courses in the Christianity and Culture forces me to be informed in what I say, do and stand in solidarity with the Indigenous people of Canada. This Papal Visit is a time for Catholics, including myself, to become (more) educated about Indigenous culture and narratives, as well as the history of residential schools, so that we can better support the cultural practices and language of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, and be informed truthfully about residential schools. We cannot rely on the media as the source of our education of the history of residential schools. We should and must hear from the Indigenous themselves, and fact-checked sources. To absorb and spread misinformation only deepens the wound already caused by the realities of residential schools, and are of no help in promoting Indigenous culture. In seeking the truth and learn about Indigenous culture, history and the realities of residential schools, we then can move to authentic reconciliation which stirs us to concrete action. That is how we can truly “walk together” and walk synodally.

I will unite with the Holy Father on this “penitential pilgrimage.” I will be in Québec City to not only be there when our spiritual father comes, but to express my closeness with the Indigenous peoples. Do not get me wrong – this is not a vacation, or celebration. To be with the Holy Father in Québec City is an affirmation that I, along with Catholics across Canada will “Walk Together” with our Indigenous brothers and sisters through this journey of healing, truth and reconciliation and that we resolve to find ways to better accompany them, even after this Papal Visit. This is a pilgrimage to the heart of Catholicism in Canada, where I will ask St. François de Laval, first bishop of Canada and defender of the rights of Indigenous Peoples of his time, to intercede for the Church of Canada. The Holy Father will do the same – he will be a pilgrim in Québec City, acknowledging the sins of the Church and the effects of sin on its children, but doing so in a spirit of hope, of synodality. This is what the Church needs. This is what the Church in Canada needs. This is what Canadians need now. Pope Francis’ Papal Visit will hopefully spark that in us all.

About Vincent Pham

Vincent is a humanities student of the University of Toronto’s Trinity College of the Faculty of Arts and Science. He hopes to pursue a double major in Ethics, Law and Society, and Philosophy.
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