Hope and skepticism after Pope Francis leads reconciliation mass near Quebec City

Indigenous people are expressing a mixture of hope and skepticism after Pope Francis’s Quebec City-area mass, with some saying they want to hear about the concrete steps that will follow the pontiff’s historic apologies for residential schools.

Francis on Thursday hosted a reconciliation-themed mass before a congregation made up largely of residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, a day after delivering another apology and plea for forgiveness for the role played by Catholic institutions in the schools.

During his homily, the pontiff used two Bible stories — that of Adam and Eve and that of two disciples haunted by failure after the death of Jesus — to illustrate the church’s “difficult and demanding journey of healing and reconciliation.”

“In confronting the scandal of evil and the body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure,” Francis said at the Basilica of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré east of Quebec City. He urged his followers not to flee or hide from the consequences of failure, but rather to turn to Jesus.

Chief Réal McKenzie of the Matimekush-Lac John Innu Nation said he was hopeful the Pope’s visit and his message would provide healing for some, but acknowledged it has divided communities. “Some are going to accept it,” but others won’t, McKenzie said. “Some are going to die with it.”

Among those attending were the Munoz family, who are of Mohawk descent and who travelled from California to see Francis.

Yolanda Munoz, whose grandfather attended residential school in Ontario, said the next step should include bringing back Indigenous remains so that they can be buried “here in the land in which they were taken.”

“We’re not relics,” she said. “We need to bring back the bones of our children, the bones of our ancestors, they need to come home.”

Jackie Gull-Barney, from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi in northern Quebec, said before the service that she was hoping to find healing and peace from the Pope’s visit.

Gull-Barney said her family was “split in half” by residential schools, after she and two of her siblings were sent to English-language schools in Ontario, and two younger siblings learned French at schools in Quebec.

She was happy with the Pope’s apology to Indigenous people in Maskwacis, Alta., which she felt was “very humble and very sincere.” But like Munoz, she’s interested in knowing what concrete steps will follow.

“What will happen after the apology?” she said. “Is there going to be programs and places we can go for assistance and help to carry on?”

Hundreds gathered outside the shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré to listen to Pope Francis lead the second mass of his Canadian tour, which he has called a pilgrimage of penance.

Before the mass, two people held their fists in the air as they briefly held up a large banner that read “Rescind the doctrine” at the front of the church. The banner referred to the Doctrine of Discovery, which stems from a series of edicts, known as papal bulls, dating back to the 15th century.

Countries, including Canada, used the doctrine to justify colonizing lands considered to be uninhabited that were in fact home to Indigenous Peoples.

Organizers said many of the speakers who delivered readings at the service Thursday were Indigenous, and the Pope’s chasuble — the outermost garment worn by Roman Catholic priests during mass — was specially designed by a local Huron-Wendat artist.

Many in the pews were dressed in orange to represent the Every Child Matters movement — remembering the children lost in residential schools and the survivors. Some attendees wore floral scarfs, and elders in wheelchairs sat in a section to the left near the stage.

The site is one of the oldest and most popular places of pilgrimage in North America and annually attracts more than one million visitors. Organizers had said more than 16,000 people were expected inside and outside, though attendance during the Pope’s previous events in Alberta fell short of expectations.

Louis Joe Bernard, a Mi’kmaq who came from Nova Scotia, said the Pope’s visit has stirred emotions but felt it was good he came to Canada. 

“I think we need God in our lives and with the Pope here, realizing, acknowledging the harm that was done to the Aboriginal people I think is good,” Bernard said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that the Pope’s trip to Canada was a “step toward healing,” but acknowledged that some Indigenous leaders want to see Francis go further.

“His Holiness’s message, the church’s message that this is a beginning of a process is encouraging, has been helpful to many in their healing, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Trudeau told reporters outside the church.

Quebec Premier François Legault told reporters that many of Quebec’s values come from the Catholic Church, including a sense of mutual aid.

But he also said he intended to use his private meeting with the Pope Friday to ask him to hand over to Indigenous communities any documents about residential schools, which he described as a dark period in Quebec and Canadian history. 

Later Thursday, the Pope is to attend vespers, a service of evening prayer, with church officials at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Québec.

Pope Francis is to leave Quebec City Friday and make a brief stop in Iqaluit before heading home to Vatican City.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 28, 2022.