The recent pilgrimage of the Holy Father, Pope Francis to Canada was the thirty-seventh of his pastoral voyages: perhaps it did not have the joy of past encounters in that its main focus was on seeking healing with the indigenous community and First Nations of the land now known as Canada. This was to be achieved through seeking forgiveness, in the name of the Church, for all that had transpired /in the forceful t assimilation of the indigenous children to the newly established Confederation of Canada. This was made clear through his speaking of this encounter as a penitential pilgrimage. This somehow summed up the whole six days he spent in the Confederation: Given this background, he was able to travel with humble dignity keeping close to the wheelchair and depending upon the assistance of his staff. One could appreciate all the work that had been undertaken on the diplomatic level since the first encounter with the Indigenous in the Vatican when he received the invitation to travel to Canada. As the trip proceeded one sensed that the civil authorities were sincere in their welcome to the one who had come from afar to right some of the wrongs of the past. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was there and also among the indigenous at the Mass at St Anne de Beaupré; while there seemed to be a real warmth between the Governor-General and the Holy Father.
There were three main focal points of the pilgrimage: firstly out to Edmonton in the prairie province of Saskatchewan, there to encounter the indigenous in their heartland, to meet their representatives in the Church of all nations in suburban Edmonton. There was much emphasis upon the recent physical renewal of this Church which had been devastated by fire and had but recently been rededicated. Now it was ready for this liturgy of reconciliation. Much was made of the image of the altar placed upon and seemingly rising from a tree stump: This aspect of the harmony of indigenous culture was further enhanced by the timbers alike to a wigwam sheltering the altar: He became flesh and pitched his/tepi among us: cf. John i:18.
Earlier, the Pope had met with some of the native peoples at the nearby Lac. St. Anne which was blessed, followed with the sprinkling of the Blessed Waters; as the Holy father spent some moments in prayer at the ramp leading into the lake there were some boats pulled in offshore, as they may have very well been at Galilee. This was all the more potent a symbol as Francis went on to quote the Galilee experience. It was one of the many happy signs of an implicit harmony of approach that was being celebrated even as it was proposed! The next day there would be the first public Mass of the visit, celebrated in the great Commonwealth stadium with the participation of some fifty thousand plus worshippers.
Turning to the second stage of the visit, we leave the prairie lands and travel east to the francophone Province of Quebec and the great City of that name and its revered citadel. There was held the official welcome and there to that city the Holy Father would return for the Thanksgiving celebration of Vespers after the pilgrimage had taken him to the adjacent shrine of St Anne de Beaupré. To this national place of pilgrimage much Canadian faithful travel to seek the intercession of Saint Anne, the Mother of our Blessed Lady. In the decoration of the Basilica, there are portrayed the saints of Canada. Some recently added, such as St Catherine Tekawitha, the indigenous maiden, Ste Marie de l’Incarnation and those honoured elsewhere as the martyrs of Canada: the Jesuit Brethren. whose bodies are rest in Midland, in the Province of Ontario. Over the previous months, the papal teaching at the Wednesday Audiences in St Peter’s had concentrated upon the desired and deserved reverence for the older members of the congregation, especially as bearers of the wisdom of the years and of the lived experience of the Christian faith. How, this was brought into striking relief when in decoration of the basilica, Saint Anne and her daughter Mary are focused on the child Jesus there between them: a handing on of faith!
The Gospel of the Mass took up the Emmaus pilgrimage, where we have the saving encounter between the two disciples, Cleopas and his companion with Jesus, the Risen Lord; He joins them and in a mysterious fashion leads them “to view the events that have happened in Jerusalem against the background of the prophecies of the past. Yet again, a trio focused on the handing on of the faith.”
Pope Francis visits Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses
Pope asks for forgiveness from Canada’s Indigenous people
Photo: News York Times
Pope Francis is greeted by a representative of Canadas indigenous peoples upon his arrival in Edmonton, Alberta on July 24 2022 at the start of his six-day visit to Canada
Photo: Vatican Media
Later, there was the return to the basilica of Notre Dame in Quebec, established by the first Bishop of Canada, St Franciscus LAVAL : thus this is the primatial See of Canada. The Vespers of a Confessor was celebrated and appropriately enough a senior priest read the capitulum, those words of Saint Peter: “be a spiritual guide and shepherd for your flock” cf 1 Peter 5:I,ii). Once more the Holy Father took up the theme, this time extending it to the wider community, that of faith received and handed on. As he did so he brought into high relief the attitude of the founding father, Francis Laval, into ever greater relief, his perseverance in his witness to the Gospel. his respect for the indigenous. At the conclusion of Vespers, for which the Choir of Saint Michael’s Cathedral, Toronto provided the music, the Holy Father then made his prayer at the tomb of St Franciscus: there about his tomb, incised into the black basalt, lay the map of his Diocese, coextensive with all of Canada as we know it, the ten provinces, the four territories, the southern border touching the archdiocese of Mexico!! Also, as a source of greater reverence, relics of the canonised saints of Canada had been brought together and it was there that the Holy Father remained in prayer for some time!
Several times in his discourses the Holy Father had touched upon the theme of the maple leaf, the secret of the colourful nature of these great landscapes and in itself a symbol of health and of healing and the proud symbol of this great nation. Now, The third and final act of the pilgrimage was with young people and elders of the Inuit, held at Iqaluit, on the border of the Arctic circle. The Holy Father in his own overview of events characterised this event as an attempt to heal the past: he embraced the image of the qulliq. the traditional light whereby the people of those parts shared light and warmth in the deepest dark. But their call from the Creator was and is to care for their land. While this is the inheritance of the young, nevertheless it must be earned and made their own: the future is in their hands. May that sense of endeavour never be obscured, but rather coming together may they may prepare the way for the future. In this they are not alone: their elders will help them, the Holy Spirit will guide them, while the Bishops, whose unity of approach in this matter the Pope noted and praised, will be working with them
Having renewed his apology, and given them this pledge of his prayerful support, the Holy Father was farewelled in song and dance Then it was time to board the Italojet A 300 airbus as he and his entourage prepared for the return to Rome.
On the plane there was the usual encounter with the journalists: some of these reflections have made it into the general coverage! But, at the close of that, there were a few words of the Holy Father on the aspetto femminile/ the feminine side to the handing of the faith. Here he reverted to the figure of Saint Anne, no doubt part of the deeper attraction to undertake this pilgrimage; what her dedication to the faith had meant for all of us. Then, returning to the scriptures he quoted the example of the Machabees and how the mother encouraged her sons to live up to the demands of the faith, as cherished by her family, no less now when their lives were being called into account in that regard: A powerful image with which to close his penitential pilgrimage.
As we reflect upon these wonderful events we too are invited to look into the life of our Church/ society to discern where the Spirit is guiding us in this sacred tradition: the Handing on of the Faith. How appropriate to bring these reflections together as we, the Church in Australia come together to implore the guidance and wisdom of our own pioneer of the faith, Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop!
Rev Dr Philip Filby
Retired Priest, Catholic Diocese of Bathurst