Pope Francis waves as he leads the Angelus from the window of his studio overlooking St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. CNS photo/Remo Casilli, Reuters

Analysis: What Canadians, Catholics can expect from papal visit

  • July 24, 2022
Michael Swan

Michael Swan
The Catholic Register

The Catholic Register was on scene with Pope Francis during his 'penitential pilgrimage' across Canada. See Michael's full reporting of the pope's historical visit.

Standing at the brink of history, it is impossible not to wonder what’s on the other side. Pope Francis’ six-day penitential pilgrimage through Canada will certainly be historic. There has never been a papal journey like this. But there’s more to it that just originality.

Here are three things Catholics should watch out for as they follow Francis’ journey through Edmonton, Maskawacis, Lac Ste. Anne, Quebec City, the Shrine of Ste. Anne-de-Beaupré and Iqaluit from July 24 to 29.


The apology in response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s Call to Action #58 is widely expected in Maskwacis, July 25, at the site of a graveyard near the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School. 

It follows a sort of opening salvo launched in Rome this spring. Pope Francis personally apologized in Rome to three Indigenous delegations (Metis, First Nations and Inuit) on April 1.  

“I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon,” he said that day.

Few will doubt Francis' sincerity. Certainly the people in the room April 1 did not.

“In Pope Francis’ statement today, I see that we are heard. I heard that we are heard. It’s absolutely historic,” Metis National Council president Cassidy Caron said that day. “An apology is the first step forward, but there is much work to be done and there is much action to be done.”

The April 1 apology wasn’t intended to fulfill the requirements of Call to Action #58, which called upon the Pope to apologize on Canadian soil for past wrongs.

In Rome, Pope Francis apologized “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church” who worked in the schools. But Indigenous leaders are unlikely to accept anything that smacks of an “a few bad apples” explanation. Whatever else the residential schools were, they were a work of the Church. The whole point of having the Pope, symbol of unity and head of the universal Church, apologize is to have the Church itself, and not merely a few members of the Church, take responsibility for this sad, sorry history.

There have long been resisters who claim that the Church as the body of Christ is holy and cannot sin. Only its members sin. But the Church is also the pilgrim people of God on their way to salvation. However much the Church is defined by this destination, we are not there yet.

So how far will Pope Francis go?

The Doctrine of Discovery

Look for Pope Francis to build on the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on the doctrine from 2016

“It is our hope and prayer that by naming and rejecting those erroneous ideas that lie behind what is commonly called the “Doctrine of Discovery” and terra nullius, we may better recognize the challenges we face today so that we may overcome them together,” the Canadian bishops, working with the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, wrote in 2016.

Throughout his pontificate, Pope Francis has elevated the teaching of bishops’ conferences, often citing them in encyclicals as the basis of his own teaching. It would be true to the Francis playbook if he were to base his teaching about the Doctrine of Discovery this week on what Canada’s bishops have taught about the subject. 

If this is the baseline, it is interesting to speculate how much further Pope Francis could go in condemning, rejecting and taking responsibility for a tradition that justified taking land and resources from people, then claiming dominion over them for the glory of God.

The audience

Throughout this week Pope Francis will be meeting with Indigenous people — survivors, elders, knowledge-keepers and youth. He will do so in private and in public. Encounters with Governor General Mary Simon, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, other civic leaders will be low key. This is a pilgrimage, not a display of Church influence, pomp and ceremony.

Pope Francis knows that reconciliation will not be accomplished in a week of flying across Canada and meeting with Indigenous people. This is the work of a lifetime and the work of a nation — our nation. Look to Pope Francis to speak forcefully to non-Indigenous Canadians about their responsibility for carrying reconciliation forward.


Liturgy doesn’t often make the news, but this week it will be news. Under the direction of Fr. Cristino Bouvette and a team of liturgists behind the scenes, Masses, prayers and other liturgies will cautiously open to the spirit and cultures of Indigenous Canada. Vestments have been designed by Nisga First Nations fabric artist Julia Kozak. Prayer spaces will be spiritually cleansed and prepared by burning sweetgrass, tobacco and other aromatic plants, as is done in a smudging ceremony. Celebrants will pray in the four cardinal directions, as is common in First Nations spirituality. There will be drumming. Prayers will be offered in Indigenous languages.

Indigenizing Catholic liturgy has been going on in Indigenous communities for decades. Inculturating the liturgy at a papal Mass will signal to non-Indigenous Canadians that their faith can live in Indigenous spirituality, just as it has existed in Celtic, Maltese, English, German and many other cultures through the centuries.

But beyond the vestments and smudging, Catholics should listen for Pope Francis' use of the Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation, also known as Eucharistic Prayer IV. This version of the prayer at the very heart of the Mass is often used during Lent, the penitential pilgrimage every Catholic knows.

All eucharistic prayers are in fact about reconciliation, because our participation in the Eucharist is our participation in Christ’s saving act in His incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection. That salvation, particularly as it manifests on the cross, reconciles God with all of creation. At the source and summit of our faith, that’s what the Eucharist is really about.

So Pope Francis hasn’t just picked the eucharistic prayer he likes. He’s chosen it to call us to live reconciliation in our lives. The credibility of the faith, the credibility of the Eucharist, depends on us making reconciliation real.

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