EDMONTON, Alberta (AP) — Pope Francis celebrated his first big Mass in Canada on Tuesday as reverberations echoed from his historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in severing generations of Indigenous family ties by participating in Canada’s “catastrophic” residential school system.
Some 50,000 people filled Commonwealth Stadium and a smaller nearby venue for the Mass. They cheered as Francis arrived in a popemobile and looped around the track, stopping occasionally to kiss babies as Indigenous hand drums thumped.
But emotions were still raw a day after Francis visited a former residential school in Maskwacis to apologize for the “evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
Phil Fontaine, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor, urged the crowd to forgive in remarks delivered before Francis arrived: “We will never achieve healing and reconciliation without forgiveness,” he said. “We will never forget, but we must forgive.”
Negative reviews also came in. Murray Sinclair, the First Nations chairman of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, welcomed the apology but said Tuesday that it didn’t go far enough in acknowledging the papacy’s own role in justifying European colonial expansion and the hierarchy’s endorsement of Canada’s assimilation policy.
Francis didn’t dwell on the apology or the church’s fraught history during the Mass, which fell on the Feast of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus and a figure of veneration for Canadian Catholics and Indigenous Catholics in particular. Due to knee problems, the 85-year-old pontiff celebrated the Mass from a seated position behind the altar.
In his homily, Francis urged young people to appreciate the wisdom and experience of their grandparents as fundamental to their very being, and to treasure those lessons to build a better future.
“Thanks to our grandparents, we received a caress from the history that preceded us: We learned that goodness, tender love and wisdom are the solid roots of humanity,” he said. “We are children because we are grandchildren.”
Francis has long lauded the role of grandmothers in passing the faith onto younger generations, citing his own experience with his grandmother, Rosa, while growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For several months Francis has delivered weekly catechism lessons on the need to treasure grandparental wisdom and not discard them as part of today’s “culture of waste.”
Francis’ message had resonance in Canada, given that families were torn apart by the church-enforced government policy of forcible assimilation.
More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were taken from their homes and made to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their families and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.
In his first event in Canada, Francis on Monday blasted the residential schools as a “disastrous error” that did “catastrophic” harm. At the site of a former school in Maskwacis, he apologized for and vowed further investigation and steps to promote healing.
Sinclair, who is also a former senator, said Francis’ apology “left a deep hole” by placing blame on individual members of the church and failing to acknowledging the church’s institutional role in the schools.
“It is important to underscore that the church was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land,” Sinclair said in a statement.
Sinclair cited church decrees and doctrines that led directly to “cultural genocide” of Indigenous peoples by underpinning colonial policy and the Doctrine of Discovery, a 19th-century international legal concept has been understood to justify colonial seizure of land and resources by European powers.
“In many instances, it was not just a collaboration, but an instigation,” Sinclair said of the residential schools.
Tuesday’s Mass was notable for the lack of Indigenous representation in the service: Aside from some music before Francis arrived, there were no Indigenous hymns or prayers, despite the significant Indigenous presence among the faithful. Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith thanked the pope for coming in four Native languages as well as French, but the service was otherwise celebrated in English.
For Lorna Lindley, a survivor of the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia, where the first presumed unmarked graves were discovered last year, the day was difficult. She said she was there to honor her late parents, who were taken to a residential school at age 5 in a cattle truck.
“For myself it’s really heavy,” Lindley said. “It’s hard. No matter how many times you apologize, it doesn’t take away the hurt and pain.”
Indigenous community leaders, for their part, urged Francis to make good on his pledge to continue the path of reconciliation with concrete action: turning over church records on Indigenous children who died at schools, funding therapeutic programs for survivors and facilitating investigations of those responsible for the abuses.
Gerald Antoine, Dene national and AFN regional chief, said he was grateful for the attention Francis’ visit and apology has brought to the history that his own family experienced, validating it for the world to see.
“I feel really good about our family. Because our family got uprooted, displaced and relocated,” he said in the stadium. “This is what our people have been saying. Nobody ever cared to listen. This is a very special moment. … The world is seeing we are telling the truth.”
Francis’ ode to grandparents was to continue later Tuesday at one of North America’s most popular pilgrimage sites, Lac Ste. Anne, considered a place of healing where the faithful come and wade into the lake. Francis was to preside over a liturgy of the word service there and bless its waters.
Alberta health authorities recently issued a blue-green algae bloom advisory for the lake, however, warning visitors to avoid contact with the blooms and refrain from wading where they are visible.
Francis’ has said his six-day visit, which also will take him to Quebec City and northern Iqaluit, Nunavut, is a “penitential pilgrimage” to atone for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. It fulfills a key recommendation of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil.
Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.