Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith at the papal Mass at Commonwealth Stadium in July. Photo by Michael Swan

‘So much’ to learn from Indigenous, Archbishop Smith says

  • December 23, 2022

Catholics are being called to consider how they can achieve reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples and build off the six historic days in July where the Pope visited Canada.

Organizers of Pope Francis’ penitential pilgrimage to Canada this past summer took part in A Reflections on the Papal Visit event on Dec. 15. Hosted in-person and streamed from St. Gregory’s Church in Toronto, participants in this panel discussion shared memories and offered insight on how to yield hope and progress. Julia and Adam Kozak, who served the Office of the Papal Visit to Canada, moderated the evening.

Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith was the first special guest interviewed by the Kozaks. Smith was general coordinator of the papal visit.

Smith said choosing where the pontiff would visit was “not an easy feat” considering Francis is of an advanced age and has suffered from ongoing knee pain.

“It was very clear he couldn’t go across Canada,” said Smith. “We needed to find some hub cities that would bring together east, west and north. He wanted to find a way to touch down on land that is meaningful to First Nations, Métis and Inuit. And he expressed a desire to come to Canada at a time when the Indigenous peoples honour their kôhkom — their grandmother.”

The kôhkom is considered the central figure of an Indigenous family. Pope Francis spoke about the special role of mothers and grandmothers participating in an annual pilgrimage to the shores of Lac St. Anne, which welcomes tens of thousands of pilgrims annually. The namesake of this sacred spot is St. Anne, the mother of Mary and grandmother of Jesus.

When asked how relations with Indigenous peoples can keep progressing, Smith said education is key to lighting a pathway forward. 

“I have this myself from people in Alberta, which was the province with more residential schools than any other province, and yet many of our own people following the visit said to me that ‘we never heard about this and we didn’t know this was going on.’ Or, ‘we grew up next to a residential school and didn’t really know what it was. We would see Indigenous people in the community, we could see that they were struggling but didn’t understand why,’ ” he said.

Smith said requests for better education have been made and the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) is committed to championing this objective. He added individual parishes, faith-based postsecondary institutions, Catholic schools and lay associations should all work to spawn learning initiatives centred around Indigenous history, culture and  language. 

“I often encourage people to try and understand the inherent giftedness of Indigenous culture,” said Smith. “There is so much that the First Nations, Métis and Inuit could be teaching us. The respect for elders, especially now with end-of-life issues and this so-called MAiD that is spreading with frightening rapidity across the country. The respect for elders, the vulnerable and weak is something we must learn.”

A willingness for Canadian Catholics and Indigenous communities to engage and find avenues to walk together is also key, in Smith’s estimation, to manifest transformative reconciliation. 

Up next was Fr. Cristino Bouvette, a priest of mixed Italian, Cree and Métis heritage, who performed as national liturgical director of the Pope’s visit. The 36-year-old chaplain of Calgary’s St. Francis Xavier Chaplaincy was the architect of the papal Mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on July 26. 

Bouvette said it was clear to him travelling in the papal entourage that Francis set the tone of the trip by first visiting Maskwacis, home to the former Ermineskin Residential School, to confer with thousands of residential school survivors from across the country. This symbolic and purposeful decision belied the protocol of the traditional papal visit. 

“This is one of the first ways we need to see this in the context of papal visits in general,” said Bouvette. “Before some fancy reception or going to preside over a Mass, he came to visit the Indigenous peoples on their land, and to participate in their cultural expressions. He sat for a long time through the grand entrances of the chiefs who were representing the country. I think watching that and receiving what that meant was in itself a historic gesture.” 

Francis’ meeting with Indigenous peoples at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton also made an impression on Bouvette. 

“What a beautiful way of having a close encounter with people in their place of worship, a place where they were experiencing harmony between the Catholic faith they have chosen to adopt without sacrificing or forsaking their culture. The whole building tells the story of that harmony and richness that’s possible. (The Pope) came and gave witness to that.”

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