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The Pope’s visit to indigenous peoples is an indication that he is reevaluating the missionary heritage

The first pope from the Americas and the discovery of hundreds of suspected graves at the school sites prompted Pope Francis’ visit to Canada to apologise for the atrocities of church-run Indigenous residential schools.

Francis has described his travel to Canada, which starts Sunday, as a “penitential pilgrimage” to seek forgiveness for the “evil” committed by Catholic missionaries to indigenous peoples. In the wake of his apology to the Vatican on April 1, for the centuries of suffering endured by Indigenous peoples because of a church-enforced programme to eradicate their culture and incorporate them into Christian Canada.

To now, the Vatican has condemned the injustices in residential schools and vigorously defended the rights and dignity of Indigenous people. Francis’ tone of personal contrition has signified a dramatic departure. But in the same breath, previous popes have lauded the heroism and sanctity of European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas — something Francis has previously done but isn’t anticipated to accentuate on this trip.

There can be no one Christian culture that can claim to own Christianity, and no church can insist that people on other continents mimic the European expression of the religion, according to Cardinal Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit who serves as a key papal advisor at the Vatican.

For centuries following Christopher Columbus’s “discovery” of America, “much misery would have been averted,” he tells the AP in an email. “Great advancements would have happened, and the Americas would be all-around better.”

Francis, 85, and the other residential school survivors, as well as their families, will have a difficult time making the journey. Because of painfully stretched knee ligaments, Francis will need a wheelchair and a cane to go about. Due to the possibility of triggering circumstances, trauma specialists are on hand at all events to offer mental health aid to school survivors.

To say there are mixed feelings would be a gross understatement, according to Louis Bull Tribal Chief Desmond Bull, whose people live on Maskwacis land, the location of the first apology by Pope Francis, which is scheduled to take place Monday near the site of a former residential school.

The Canadian government has confirmed that state-funded Christian schools in operation from the nineteenth century until the 1970s were rife with physical and sexual abuse. As many as 150,000 Native American children were removed from their families and forced to attend schools in an attempt to keep them isolated from their homes, their native language or culture.

Among Indigenous leaders, alcohol and drug consumption on Canadian reserves has been linked to the legacy of abuse and separation from family.

Unlike other papal travels, this one prioritises meetings with indigenous peoples, including the Metis and Inuit, above diplomatic formalities. Francis and Justin Trudeau don’t even have a formal meeting until the middle of the trip, in Quebec City.

Francis is also completing the tour in a unique way, by stopping in Iqaluit, Nunavut, the furthest north he has ever visited, to apologise to the Inuit population.

Even though the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission proved institutional guilt in 2015 and expressly requested a papal apology be made on Canadian territory in 2018, Francis declined to personally apologise for residential school atrocities.

Canadian bishops indicated at the time that Francis felt “he could not directly reply” to Trudeau’s demand to apologise to him at the Vatican in 2017.

We don’t know what’s changed. During his first visit to Bolivia in 2015, the first pope from the Americas, who has long advocated for the rights of Indigenous peoples, apologised for atrocities committed against Native peoples in the area during the colonial period.

One of the main themes of Pope Francis’ 2019 Amazon summit was the fact that corporate interests continue to abuse Native peoples’ lands and resources, perpetuating the injustices they endured during colonial times. Francis is an Argentine Jesuit.

More than 200 children’s bones were discovered in Kamloops, British Columbia in 2021, at the site of what was formerly Canada’s biggest Indigenous residential school. Outside of other previous residential schools, cemeteries with higher probabilities of interment were found.

The Louis Bull Tribe’s leader, Bull, said, “It was only when our children began to be discovered in mass graves that light was brought to this tragic chapter in our history.

Francis eventually agreed to meet with Indigenous delegates this spring and vowed to visit their territories to apologise in person after the finding.

Matteo Bruni, a Vatican spokesperson, stated that “obviously there are wounds that remain fresh and demand a response.”

The so-called Doctrine of Discovery, a 19th-century international legal doctrine that is commonly seen as legitimising European colonial appropriation of territory and resources from Native peoples, is one of those scars that have been inflicted by papal influences.

Since the 15th century, indigenous peoples have been calling on the Holy See to legally revoke papal bulls or decrees giving European nations the theological basis to claim territories their explorers “found” in order to promote Christianity.

However, for centuries, church leaders have steadfastly resisted this line of thinking, insisting the decrees were only intended to promote a peaceful extension of European influence, and arguing that more recent church doctrines respecting Indigenous peoples’ dignity and rights have supplanted it.

In any case, it’s still an emotional subject for Oneida Nation Wolf Clan member Michelle Schenandoah, who was the final member of the First Nations delegation to speak to Pope Francis on March 31.

“The Doctrine of Discovery led to the ongoing removal of our infants,” she reminded him, wearing a cradle board on her back to signify the children who died in residential schools.

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