Pope Francis meets Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire Trudeau during a private audience at the Vatican May 29. Trudeau invited the Pope to make an official apology on Canadian soil for the Catholic Church's involvement in residential schools. CNS/Reuters

Editorial: Canadian bishops are wise to take their time

By 
  • October 12, 2017
Despite several invitations and considerable speculation, a papal visit to Canada seems no closer today than it was 2 1/2 years ago when the topic first surfaced.

There is no doubt Pope Francis would be joyously welcomed in Canada. We may live in an age of doubt when it comes to religion and faith, but people are certain about Pope Francis. Poll after poll confirms his universal popularity.

Yet Canada’s bishops, who can extend the only invitation the Pope might accept, are clearly undecided and perhaps divided on how to proceed. Without their support and official invitation, Pope Francis won’t come to Canada, regardless of how many requests he gets from politicians and First Nations leaders. Protocol dictates the invitation come from the bishops.

And they are in a tough position with no imminent resolution to their dilemma. A papal visit was not even on the agenda — not officially, at least — when the bishops held their annual conference in late September. According CCCB president Bishop Lionel Gendron, the bishops are in a process of “discernment” on this delicate subject.

That is not what pope watchers wanted to hear, but the caution is prudent. The bishops are wise to be methodical and get this right, despite significant public and political pressure to act quickly.

That pressure has been building since June 2015 when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its damning report on residential schools. Among 94 calls to action, No. 58 demanded that the Pope apologize on Canadian soil for the complicity of many Catholic clergy who ran schools that inflicted physical, sexual and emotional harm on thousands of Indigenous children.

Previous to the report, Francis had already declined invitations from Quebec politicians and the Montreal archbishop to join Montreal’s 375th anniversary celebrations. Last December, Saskatchewan’s bishops declared their support for a papal apology in Canada. Then in May the Prime Minister asked the Pope to come here to apologize.

All of which leaves the bishops in a tough spot.

First, there’s the practical matter of money. Even a short papal visit would cost millions of dollars the bishops don’t have. Discussions with the government about who’d pick up the tab are apparently unresolved. But finances aren’t the only problem.

The Pope is unlikely to come here solely to make an apology. The inveterate pastor, he would want to interact with Canadians on many of the themes that define his pontificate, several of which involve the metaphor of the Church as a field hospital for the spiritually wounded. No one wants an apostolic pilgrimage that could be hijacked by a single, politically charged issue.

But that is a real danger, and a potentially expensive one at that. The bishops are wise to tread softly as they figure this out.

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