Pope Francis celebrated a Stadium Mass on Tuesday, his first major open-air event on a trip to Canada centered around apologizing for the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools that sought to eradicate native cultures.
Mass at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton takes place on the day the Roman Catholic Church marks the feast of Jesus’ grandparents.
Francis is expected to repeat his continued appeal to younger generations to cherish and learn from their elders, a practice still revered in indigenous communities but declining in many Western societies.
As the crowd awaited the arrival of the Pope, that theme was reflected in a talk by Phil Fontaine, a former gathering of First Nations national chief and a residential school survivor.
“It’s all about them as it is about us,” Fontaine told the crowd, referring to the indigenous people’s respect for their elders.
Fontaine, who met with the pope at the Vatican earlier this year and was among Indigenous leaders to invite him to Canada, reflected on Monday on Francis’s visit to the Masquesas, which was previously home to two residential schools.
There, the pope issued a landmark apology, calling for the church’s role in schools and forcible cultural assimilation, an attempt he called “tragic evil” and a “catastrophic error”.
“I want to tell my friends that we are really talking about forgiveness. We will never reach reconciliation without forgiveness,” Fontaine said.
“We will never forget but we must forgive. We invite the Catholic Church to rebuild the broken relationship with us and for all Canadians.”
In the afternoon, Francis, who has been using a wheelchair and cane due to a knee ailment, is scheduled to visit Lac Ste. Anne, about 70 km (44 mi) west of Edmonton, is a pilgrimage site popular among indigenous Canadian Catholics and people of European descent.
More than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools. Many were starved, beaten for speaking their native language and sexually abused in a system that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called “cultural genocide”.
Indigenous leaders as well as school survivors said that the papal apology aroused strong sentiments and was a very important step towards reconciliation, requiring further action by the Church and the government.
Tony Alexis, head of the Nakota Sioux Nation, said, “You can’t just say, ‘I’m sorry,’ and walk away. There has to be effort, and work behind the words, into more meaningful actions.”
On Wednesday, the Pope will travel to Quebec City for the more institutional part of his visit, meeting with government officials and diplomats.
On his way back to Rome on Friday, he will stop for a few hours at Iqaluit in the Canadian Arctic, where indigenous cases have been reported.
The Iqaluit region is one of the fastest warming parts of North America and there the Pope is expected to address the threats of climate change.
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