Previous papal visits by Pope John Paul II to Canada have been joyous occasions — like World Youth Day 2002 in Toronto, above, and his triumphant cross-Canada tour in 1984 where the nation welcomed the Polish pontiff. The next papal visit, expected in 2022, will be different with Pope Francis coming on a journey focused on reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. Photo by Michael Swan

A ‘penitent’ Pope will be coming to a wounded nation

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  • November 4, 2021

There has never been a papal visit to anywhere that has been anything like what will unfold when Pope Francis comes to Canada — a papal journey of sorrow, mourning and repentance holding forth a thin candle of hope up against the flood of our own Catholic sins.

“This is a different Pope,” points out Canadian Catholic scholar Michael Higgins. “And of course the reason for his coming is different. He’s coming as a penitent. There’s no triumphalism this time. He’s coming to a bruised Church. He’s coming to, in many ways, an angry Church. There are many Catholics who are upset by what has happened. So, he’s coming to a wounded nation.”

Higgins, the principal of St. Mark’s College and president of Corpus Christi College at the University of British Columbia, believes this papal journey will be entirely about healing.

“Many Catholics will be drawn to this rite of atonement, if you like. Because, I think, they feel the need for it,” he said.

As luck would have it, the man who now stands in the shoes of the fisherman is uniquely qualified to take on this challenge.

“Probably no better Pope is positioned to handle this than this man,” said Higgins. “He attends. He listens to victims and to wounds. He’s the one who came up with the image of the Church as a field hospital. This is going to be an entirely different kind of visit — not celebratory but healing and essential.”

In 1984, 1987 and 2002 Higgins was a prominent voice on the CBC covering Pope John Paul II’s three visits to Canada. In 2005 his book Pope John Paul II: Connecting to Canadians was published. He’s currently working on a book about Pope Francis.

No date has been set for Pope Francis’ pilgrimage to Canada, but it won’t happen before a long-planned meeting of Indigenous leaders and youth in Rome Dec. 17-20. Francis’ apostolic journey to Canada is widely expected to happen next year.

It will be the fourth papal journey to Canada, with all three previous visits happening during the 27-year papacy of St. Pope John Paul II.

“The 1984 visit was really a celebratory one,” said Higgins. “All of Canada, not just the Catholic community but beyond the Catholic community, was drawn to this heroic, highly dramatic, international figure.”

From Flatrock, Nfld., to Vancouver, Pope John Paul II was a phenomenon for a nation eager to proclaim its maturity of soul. He was greeted by the Catholic leadership of the country in Governor General Jeanne Sauvé, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and Progressive Conservative leader Brian Mulroney.

“All this kind of stuff was really exciting,” said Higgins.

In 1987 Pope John Paul II fulfilled a promise he had made in 1984 when fog prevented him from visiting Dene territory to meet with Indigenous people. In Fort Simpson, Northwest Territories, on Sept. 20, 1987, the pope reiterated his conviction that “Christ, in the members of His body, is Himself Indian.”

“My coming among you looks back to your past in order to proclaim your dignity and support your destiny,” John Paul II declared. “... The Church extols the equal human dignity of all peoples and defends their right to uphold their own cultural character with its distinct traditions and customs.”

The 2002 trip to Toronto for World Youth Day was different again.

“It was a World Youth Day. The pope was very ill. There was no real national Canadian sense that this was important, having the pope here,” recalled Higgins.

An estimated 800,000 gathered in a muddy field at Downsview Park for a final celebratory Mass wrapping up two weeks of World Youth Day activity that had been undertaken in dioceses across Canada. But the event left the Canadian hierarchy fearful of the costs of apostolic journeys.

“Most of the bishops I spoke to, particularly the cardinal archbishop of Toronto at that time (Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic), lamented the whole thing,” Higgins said.

This time the Pope will be called on to help Canadians face the consequences of Canada’s history, rooted in colonization and the weaponization of an education system used against the children and families it supposedly served. Rather than equipping children for full participation in society, the goal of residential schools was to erase Indigenous culture and replace it with minimal skills for functioning in the economy.

“In the process you ravage their own voice. You dismiss the cultural props and deep, visceral cultural ideas that have secured them in time,” said Higgins. “And this whole process of erasing, of course, results in creating a horrible vacuum with all the anxieties, crises, trauma and everything else that we’re facing now.”

Nobody can script the Pope. And while an apology is expected, its form and effect will have to wait. But Higgins has one prediction.

“What he’s going to be interested in, as he always is when he meets with victims and survivors, is the healing process,” he said. “How do you begin the complex healing process? Through gestures of genuine forgiveness, genuine requests for forgiveness, rites or rituals that bind us rather than divide us. It’s an enormous task.”

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