Pope in Canada honors grandparents after apologizing to Indigenous people

Pope Francis honored grandparents Tuesday as “the solid roots of humanity,” as reverberations echoed from his historic apology for the Catholic Church’s role in severing generations of Indigenous family ties by participating in Canada’s “catastrophic” residential school system.

Emotions were still raw in Commonwealth Stadium and a smaller nearby venue as some 50,000 people gathered for Francis’ first big Mass in Canada. They cheered as he arrived in a popemobile and looped around the track, stopping occasionally to kiss babies to the beat of Indigenous hand drums.

Phil Fontaine, former chief of the Assembly of First Nations and a residential school survivor, urged the crowd to forgive in remarks delivered before Francis arrived: “We will never achieve healing and reconciliation without forgiveness,” he said. “We will never forget, but we must forgive.”

Offering a negative review of Francis’ apology was Murray Sinclair, the First Nations chairman of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, who welcomed the apology but said Tuesday that it didn’t go far enough in acknowledging the papacy’s own role in justifying European colonial expansion and the hierarchy’s endorsement of Canada’s assimilation policy.

Francis didn’t dwell on the apology or the church’s fraught history during the Mass, which fell on the Feast of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus and a figure of particular veneration for Canadian Catholics. Due to knee problems, the 85-year-old pontiff celebrated the Mass from a seated position behind the altar.


In his homily, Francis urged young people to appreciate the wisdom and experience of their grandparents as fundamental to their very being, and to treasure those lessons to build a better future.

“Thanks to our grandparents, we received a caress from the history that preceded us: We learned that goodness, tender love and wisdom are the solid roots of humanity,” he said. “We are children because we are grandchildren.”

Francis has long lauded the role of grandmothers in passing the faith onto younger generations, citing his own experience with his grandmother, Rosa, while growing up in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For several months Francis has delivered weekly catechism lessons on the need to treasure grandparental wisdom and not discard them as part of today’s “culture of waste.”

Francis’ message has great resonance in Canada, given the respect owed to Indigenous elders and the fact that families were torn apart by the church-enforced government policy of forced assimilation.

More than 150,000 Native children in Canada were taken from their homes and made to attend government-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their families and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

In his first event in Canada, Francis on Monday blasted the residential schools as a “disastrous error” that did “catastrophic” harm. At the site of a former school in Maskwacis, he apologized for the “evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples” and vowed further investigation and steps to promote healing.

Among those in the crowd Tuesday was Lorna Lindley, a survivor of the Kamloops residential school in British Columbia, where the first presumed unmarked graves were discovered last year. She said she was there to honor her late parents, who were taken to a residential school at age 5 in a cattle truck.

“For myself it’s really heavy,” Lindley said. “It’s hard. No matter how many times you apologize, it doesn’t take away the hurt and pain.”

Sinclair, who is also a former senator, said Francis’ apology “left a deep hole” by placing blame on individual members of the church and failing to acknowledging the church’s institutional role in the schools.

“It is important to underscore that the Church was not just an agent of the state, nor simply a participant in government policy, but was a lead co-author of the darkest chapters in the history of this land,” Sinclair said in a statement.

Sinclair cited church decrees and doctrines that led directly to “cultural genocide” of Indigenous people by underpinning colonial policy and the Doctrine of Discovery, a 19th century international legal concept has been understood to justify colonial seizure of land and resources by European powers.

“In many instances, it was not just a collaboration, but an instigation,” Sinclair said.

Indigenous community leaders, for their part, urged Francis to make good on his pledge to continue the path of reconciliation with concrete action: turning over church records on Indigenous children who died at schools, funding therapeutic programs for survivors and facilitating investigations of those responsible for the abuses.

Francis “can’t just say sorry and walk away,” Chief Tony Alexis of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation said.

Francis’ ode to grandparents was to continue later Tuesday at one of North America’s most popular pilgrimage sites, Lac Ste. Anne, considered a place of healing where the faithful come and wade into the lake. Francis was to preside over a liturgy of the word service there and bless its waters.

Alberta health authorities recently issued a blue-green algae bloom advisory for the lake, however, warning visitors to avoid contact with the blooms and refrain from wading where they are visible.

Francis’ has said his six-day visit, which also will take him to Quebec City and northern Iqaluit, Nunavut, is a “penitential pilgrimage” to atone for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system. It fulfills a key recommendation of Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which sought a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil.