The dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican is seen through a window of Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome in this 2018 file photo. A Canadian Indigenous delegation will be meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican beginning March 28. CNS photo/Ahmed Jadallah, Reuters

Why Rome matters

  • March 25, 2022

Rome is not just another city. It’s not even an Italian city. It belongs to the world and to God at one and the same time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission never demanded the Pope receive delegations of Indigenous people in Rome. Call to Action #58 rather straightforwardly asks the Pope to apologize on Canadian soil within a year of the TRC issuing its 6,000-page final report in 2015.

Going to Rome was the Canadian bishops’ idea and it began well before the Kamloops grave discovery finally forced the legacy of residential schools into Canadian consciousness.

Before May of last year, planning for Indigenous visits to Rome had been tentative and slow. Once there were daily headlines, “Every Child Matters” flags flying from school flagpoles and caravans of Indigenous people converging on Ottawa, Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops staff became singularly focused on Rome.

Retired judge George Valin has dedicated the last several years to trying to get Call to Action #58 fulfilled. He has written to the CCCB, to individual bishops and the Pope’s nuncio in Ottawa on multiple occasions, demanding to know why this isn’t happening. Over a period of six years he was mostly ignored.

Valin has never understood why a trip to Rome first should have been necessary. But bringing residential school survivors to the very centre of the Catholic world, to the heart of the universal Church, is the very opposite of ignoring and dismissing Indigenous people.

“I think it’s a recognition of the symbolic role of the bishop of Rome and an acknowledgement of a connection between a form of colonial mission that had the support of the highest authorities of Catholicism,” said Saint Paul University theologian Catherine Clifford. “It’s a step in the acknowledgement of broad collective responsibility of the Catholic Church and its members, and of our shared responsibility for a chapter in our history where we conceived of mission in a way that was really destructive for many, many Indigenous peoples.”

Former Assembly of First Nations Grand Chief and residential school survivor Phil Fontaine isn’t saying no to visiting with Pope Francis.

“I don’t mind going to the eternal city,” he told The Catholic Register in October.

Fontaine, who met with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, understands this trip to Rome strictly in terms of the fullest possible fulfilment of Call to Action #58.

“In the same way that the apology from the Prime Minister in 2008 was… delivered to Indigenous people on behalf of all Canadians, of course I would expect that all Canadians would be very supportive of this papal visit. And the possibility of an apology from the Holy Father in Canada, in First Nations territory,” he said.

It may also be that the trip to Rome represents an evolution in the thinking of the CCCB. Before the Rome trip was announced, Valin spoke of his frustration with the bishops’ explanations for sidestepping the papal apology issue.

“They keep coming back to this notion that the Church is decentralized in its structure and each diocese is responsible for its own affairs. They keep harping on that,” the judge said. “They totally ignore how Indigenous people and indeed people at large view the Pope as the supreme head and universal pastor of the Church.”

Nobody is ignoring the healing power of Pope Francis’ voice now.

Rome first and then an answering visit to Canada is in every way consistent with Pope Francis’ vision of a Church centred and unified while at the same time connected to the peripheries of its life.

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