Cultural controversy surrounds papal apology

Pope Francis’ “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada began with an impassioned apology, setting the scene for the 6-day pilgrimage.

The apology is only a first step towards reconciliation.

The pilgrimage began Monday, July 25.

The first act on the Canadian “penitential pilgrimage,” was the return of two pairs of children’s moccasins on 25 July.

“I am sorry,” he said.

Cultural destruction

“I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools.

“We want to walk together, to pray together and to work together so that the sufferings of the past can lead to a future of justice, healing and reconciliation,” said Francis.

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry,” he said.

Indigenous culture is a treasury of sound customs and teachings, centred on concern for others, truthfulness, courage and respect, humility, honesty, and practical wisdom.

Saying the Church’s actions were “catastrophic,” Francis called the Indigenous culture “a treasury of sound customs and teachings centred on concern for others, truthfulness, courage and respect, humility, honesty and practical wisdom”.

Christian faith, he said, “tells us that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ”.

He said it is painful for him to think of how the values, language and culture of Indigenous communities “was eroded, and that you have continued to pay the price of this.”


After issuing an impassioned apology, Francis gave voice to his vision of reconciliation by visiting an Indigenous Catholic congregation at Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples congregation in Edmonton.

The church, built in 1913, welcomes Indigenous and non-Indigenous faithful.

One cannot proclaim God

in a way contrary to God himself.


“This place is a house for all, open and inclusive, just as the Church should be, for it is the family of the children of God where hospitality and welcome, typical values of the Indigenous culture, are essential,” he said.

“A home where everyone should feel welcome, regardless of past experiences and personal life stories.

“It pains me to think that Catholics contributed to policies of assimilation and disenfranchisement that inculcated a sense of inferiority — robbing communities and individuals of their cultural and spiritual identity, severing their roots and fostering prejudicial and discriminatory attitudes.

“And that this was also done in the name of an educational system that was supposedly Christian,” Pope Francis said.

“One cannot proclaim God in a way contrary to God himself,” the pope said.

“Nothing can ever take away the violation of dignity, the experience of evil, the betrayal of trust” suffered by the students, he said.

Nothing can “take away our own shame as believers.”

This happened because believers

imposed their own cultural models.


“That happened because believers became worldly and, rather than fostering reconciliation, they imposed their own cultural models” on the students, he said.

Unfortunately, he said, “this attitude dies hard, also from the religious standpoint”.

“Indeed, it may seem easier to force God on people, rather than letting them draw near to God,” Pope Francis said. “Yet this never works, because that is not how the Lord operates.”

“He does not force us, he does not suppress or overwhelm; instead, he loves, he liberates, he leaves us free. He does not sustain with his Spirit those who dominate others, who confuse the Gospel of our reconciliation with proselytism,” the pope said.

While God presents himself

simply and quietly

we always have the temptation

to impose him, and

to impose ourselves in his name.


“While God presents himself simply and quietly,” the pope said, “we always have the temptation to impose him, and to impose ourselves in his name.”


Build a positive legacy

Day two of his pilgrimage began with Mass, attended by an estimated 50,000 people.

In the course of the homily, Francis challenged humanity to envision the future.

In addition to being children of a history that needs to be preserved, we are authors of a history yet to be written, the Pope said, noting that we are marked by both light and shadows and by the love we did or did not receive, he said.

He said that while we are the children of parents, it is good to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to build and bequeath to those who came after us.

We are authors of a history yet to be written.

Later in the day he visited Lac Ste Anne, a famous Catholic pilgrimage site in Canada that holds spiritual significance for the nation’s indigenous people.

The pope blessed a bowl of the lake’s water, which was brought up to a small wooden structure shaped like a teepee, overlooking the lake.

Francis made the Sign of the Cross towards the four cardinal points, according to Indigenous custom.

The pope prayed by the water’s edge in his wheelchair before sprinkling the crowds with the blessed water.

He concluded the day celebrating a Liturgy of the Word at the Shrine of Ste Anne, with a crowd of mostly Indigenous people in attendance, estimated at around 10,000.

Condemnation of old and new colonialism

On day three, Francis travelled to Québec where he met with government authorities.

Speaking with Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, Francis criticised the “colonialist mentality” that oppressed Indigenous peoples in the past and continues today, while apologising once more for the role played by the Catholic Church.

“In the past, the colonialist mentality disregarded the concrete life of people and imposed certain predetermined cultural models,” he said.

Residential schools are an example of “Cancel Culture”

He also warned of modern-day colonialism.

“Yet today too, there are any number of forms of ideological colonisation that clash with the reality of life, stifle the natural attachment of peoples to their values and attempt to uproot their traditions, history and religious ties,” he added.

Calling for “the legitimate rights of the native populations and to favour processes of healing and reconciliation between them and the non-indigenous people of the country,” Francis labelled the “deplorable system” of residential schools in Canada as an example of “cancel culture”.

The Pope reiterated that the Holy See and the local Catholic communities wish to concretely promote the indigenous peoples’ rights.

“It is our desire to renew the relationship between the Church and the Indigenous peoples of Canada, a relationship marked both by a love that has borne outstanding fruit and, tragically, deep wounds that we are committed to understanding and healing,” he said.

Francis observed that the suffering inflicted by the colonising mentality does not heal easy.

“Multiculturalism is fundamental for the cohesiveness of a society as diverse as the dappled colours of the foliage of the maple trees,” he said.

“With its universal dimension, its concern for the most vulnerable, its rightful service to human life at every moment of its existence from conception to natural death, is happy to offer its specific contribution,” said Francis.


Francis’s “Penitential Pilgrimage” is not gone without further cultural controversy.

Some members of First Nations in Manitoba say they’re angry that Pope Francis was given a headdress as a gift following his apology on Monday for the role members of the Catholic Church played in Canada’s residential school system.

After the Pope’s apology in Maskwacis, Alberta, Wilton Littlechild who is honorary chief of Ermineskin First Nation presented the pontiff with a headdress.

The Pope wore the regalia over his traditional papal head covering until it was removed shortly after by a member of his staff.

“I suppose [the Pope is]

the leader for them.

But I don’t believe

that the Pope is the leader

for the rest of us.

How do we invite the fox

into the chicken coop

and say,

‘OK, you’re the head rooster in here?’

It doesn’t work that way.”


“For them to gift [the Pope] this sacred item was disappointing,” said Kevin Tacan, a knowledge keeper and spiritual advisor from Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in western Manitoba.

“It’s become a thing to recognise political leadership, and it’s not meant to be that way.”

Tacan said headdresses are traditionally earned by members who are doing significant work in service of the community.

“[People] have to prove themselves constantly. They have to continue to prove themselves going into the future, that they still deserve to have it.”

Others supported the idea of the gift.

Phil Fontaine, a residential school survivor who has served as both national chief of the Assembly of First Nations and grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, said Littlechild followed protocols in requesting permission to present the headdress.

“He went to the elders. He went to the leadership and requested permission to present that gift. So [it was] entirely consistent with the way they followed their customs and protocol,” Fontaine said.

Tacan acknowledges some, like Fontaine, support the gift but he doesn’t agree with them.

“I suppose [the Pope is] the leader for them. But I don’t believe that the Pope is the leader for the rest of us,” he said.

“How do we invite the fox into the chicken coop and say, ‘OK, you’re the head rooster in here?’ It doesn’t work that way.”

“If somebody has a vision or if the community decides, ‘This is a good leader, let’s pick him,’ they go over and they put a blanket around him, put a headdress on him,” he said. “They will decide.”

He said medicine men can also decide if someone deserves a headdress.

“He already knows — he got the information from up there,” Wakita said.

He doesn’t believe many people understand the meaning of the headdress anymore.

“I’m sorry to say that our people, they don’t understand the sacredness of this. Not the importance — the sacredness of something that came from the Creator.”




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