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Deacon-structing Pope John Paul II’s meetings with Indigenous people in Canada

Deacon Pedro

Monday, May 2, 2022

Elder Fred Kelly of the Assembly of First Nations delegation offers the opening prayer during the final audience with Pope Francis in Rome on April 1, 2022. Photo credit: Matthew Bodnarek/CCCB
Last October, Pope Francis accepted an invitation from Canadian bishops to make an apostolic visit Canada “in the context of the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with indigenous peoples”.  This visit is expected to take place this year.
When the Holy Father met with Indigenous delegates on April 1st in Rome, he told them he would “be happy to benefit again from meeting you when I visit your native lands, where your families live”. He also dropped a hint as to the date: “I think with joy, for example, of the great veneration that many of you have for Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus. This year I would like to be with you on those days.” The feast of St. Anne, of course, is July 26.
An apostolic visit this year would be the biggest thing to happen in the Church in Canada in the last 20 years, since the last time a pope was here: Saint John Paul II for World Youth Day 2002.
However, this apostolic visit will be like no other (and I hope to explore that in future posts). There have been three papal visits to Canada, all by John Paul II. He came in 1984, in 1987, and then in 2002. On all those occasions, he met with and specifically addressed Indigenous people.
The trip in 1984 was a whirlwind, 12-day tour of Canada during September 9-20. Pope John Paul went everywhere, from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Vancouver, British Columbia, and north to Yellowknife. Along the way, he stopped in Halifax, Moncton, Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Midland, Winnipeg, and Edmonton, meeting with students, teachers, fishermen, people with disabilities, the sick and the elderly, clergy and religious, and Slovak, Ukrainian, and Polish communities. He presided over several open-air public Masses attended by hundreds of thousands of people, including the Mass of Beatification of Sister Marie-Léonie Paradis, founder of the Little Sisters of the Holy Family, and the consecration of Canada to Mary.
But many remember the 1984 visit particularly for three addresses the pope made, specifically to Indigenous people.
On the second day of his visit, September 10, the pope stopped at the Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré.  This was his first meeting with Indigenous people.  In his speech he told them:
You represent the first inhabitants of this immense region of North America. For centuries, you have marked it with your imprint, your traditions, your civilization. Other waves of people came from Europe, with their own culture and Christian faith. They have taken their place next to you; this vast continent allowed a cohabitation which had its difficult times but which also proved to be fruitful. God gave the earth to all men. Today you have your place well marked in this country.”
He added:
“I know that relations between Aboriginals and Whites are still often strained and marked by prejudice. In addition, we must realize that in many places Aboriginal people are among the poorest and most marginalized in society. They suffer from the delays brought to a proper understanding of their identity and their abilities to participate in the orientations of their future.”
He then spoke in English:
“As disciples of Jesus Christ, we know that the Gospel calls us to live as his brothers and sisters. We know that Jesus Christ makes possible reconciliation between peoples, with all its requirements of conversion, justice and social love. If we truly believe that God created us in his image, we shall be able to accept one another with our differences and despite our limitations and our sins.”
He concluded by reading descriptions of the Church in some Indigenous languages saying that “this will be a way to come closer to you and to express to you my fraternal affection”.
“The Church is the ‘Asadjigan’ of God for you.
L’Eglise est le ‘Sheshepetan’ de Dieu pour vous.
The Church is the ‘Shishititagan’ of God for you.
L’Eglise est le ‘Teshititagan’ de Dieu pour vous.
The Church is the ‘Ia-Ien-Taien-Ta-Kwa’ of God for you.
L’Eglise est l’‘Apatagat’ de Dieu pour vous.
“We must now leave each other. In the language of our Inuit brothers and sisters, I would like to assure you that you are my friends, all of you who are loved by God: ‘Ilannaarivapsi Tamapsi Naglijauvusi Jisusinut’.”
You can read the full text in French here.
On September 15, the Holy Father travelled north of Toronto to Matryr’s Shrine in Midland, Ontario, where he celebrated a Liturgy of the Word with Indigenous people. This is probably his most famous address to Indigenous people, as this is when he said thatChrist, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.
He began:
“Chay! With this traditional Huron word of welcome I greet you all. And I greet you, too, in the name of Jesus Christ who loves you and who has called you out ‘of every race, language, people and nation’ to be one in his Body the Church. [...] And in a special way I greet the native peoples of Canada, the descendants of the first inhabitants of this land, the North American Indians.”
Later on he said:
“And today we are grateful for the part that the native peoples play, not only in the multicultural fabric of Canadian society, but in the life of the Catholic Church. Christ himself is incarnate in his Body, the Church. And through her action, the Church desires to assist all people ‘to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought’.
“Thus the one faith is expressed in different ways. There can be no question of adulterating the word of God or of emptying the Cross of its power, but rather of Christ animating the very centre of all culture. Thus, not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian people, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian.”
And he concluded:
“Like the good Samaritan, we are called to heal the wounds of our neighbor in distress. With Saint Paul, we must affirm: ‘It is God who has reconciled us to himself through Christ and he has given us the ministry of working for this reconciliation’ (2 Cor. 5, 18). The time has truly come for Canadians to heal all the divisions that have arisen over the centuries between the peoples originally present and those who came later to this continent. This call is addressed to all individuals and groups, to all churches and ecclesial communities throughout Canada.”
Read the full address here.
On September 18, the Holy Father was scheduled to be in Fort Simpson, NWT, but a heavy fog prevented him from arriving. Instead the plane took him to Yellowknife, where he delivered a radio message to Indigenous people. He started:
“I know that you all would understand the suffering that I feel at this time, the suffering of keen disappointment. With these sentiments I wish to read you the message that I have prepared for you for my visit.”
He then said:
“My presence in your midst today is intended to be another expression of the deep interest and solicitude which the Church wishes to show for the native peoples of the New World. In 1537, in a document entitled Pastorale Officium, my predecessor Paul III proclaimed the rights of the native peoples of those times. He affirmed their dignity, defended their freedom, asserted that they could not be enslaved or deprived of their goods or ownership.”
He added before concluding:
“Today I have come to the beloved native peoples to proclaim anew the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to confirm its requirements. I have come in order to speak once again about your dignity and to renew to you the Church’s friendship and love - a love that is expressed in service and pastoral care. I have come to assure you, and the whole world, of the Church’s respect for your ancient patrimony - for your many worthy ancestral customs.
“And yes, dear brothers and sisters, I have come to call you to Christ, to propose again, for you and all Canada, his message of forgiveness and reconciliation. It is clear from the historical record that over the centuries your peoples have been repeatedly the victims of injustice by newcomers who, in their blindness, often saw all your culture as inferior. Today, happily, this situation has been largely reversed, and people are learning to appreciate that there is great richness in your culture, and to treat you with greater respect.
“As I mentioned in Midland, the hour has come to bind up wounds, to heal all divisions. It is a time for forgiveness, for reconciliation and for a commitment to building new relationships.”
Read the full text here.
During his farewell address in Ottawa on September 20, he said:
“I reiterate at this time my keen disappointment at not being able to visit the Indians, Inuit and Metis people at Fort Simpson. From the very beginning of the preparations of my pastoral visit to Canada, I attributed great importance to this encounter, and I now renew to all of them the expression of fraternal love and esteem that I communicated through my message to them. I truly hope that God’s Providence will give me another occasion to meet with them (And excuse me... for thus inviting myself a second time to Canada).”
And so, in 1987, while on a whirlwind visit to the United States, before returning to Rome, he added a stop in Fort Simpson, NWT, where he delivered two addresses.
In the first one, after reiterating a bit of what he had said in 1984, he repeated the line from Midland in 1984, that “not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian peoples, but Christ, in the members of his Body, is himself Indian”.
He then added:
“I am aware that the major Aboriginal organizations - the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada, the Metis National Council, and the Native Council of Canada - have been engaged in high level talks with the Prime Minister and Premiers regarding ways of protecting and enhancing the rights of the Aboriginal peoples of Canada in the Constitution of this great country. Once again I affirm the right to a just and equitable measure of self-government, along with a land base and adequate resources necessary for developing a viable economy for present and future generations. I pray with you that a new round of conferences will be beneficial and that, with God’s guidance and help, a path to a just agreement will be found to crown all the efforts being made.
“These endeavours, in turn, were supported by the Catholic bishops of Canada and the leaders of the major Christian Churches and communities. Together, they have called for a ‘new covenant’ to ensure your basic Aboriginal rights, including the right to self-government. Today, I pray that the Holy Spirit will help you all to find the just way so that Canada may be a model for the world in upholding the dignity of the Aboriginal peoples.
He then reminded them:
“Let me recall that, at the dawn of the Church’s presence in the New World, my predecessor Pope Paul III proclaimed in 1537 the rights of the native peoples of those times. He affirmed their dignity, defended their freedom and asserted that they could not be enslaved or deprived of their goods or ownership. That has always been the Church’s position. My presence among you today marks my reaffirmation and reassertion of that teaching.
Read the full text here.
After a private audience with leaders of the four national Indigenous organizations: the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (now the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami), the Métis National Council, and the Native Council of Canada (now the Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), he then presided over Mass. In his homily he said:
“For untold generations, you the native peoples have lived in a relationship of trust with the Creator, seeing the beauty and the richness of the land as coming from his bountiful hand and as deserving wise use and conservation. Today you are working to preserve your traditions and consolidate your rights as Aboriginal peoples.”
Then, before concluding he said:
Today, this parable of cultivating the Lord’s vineyard presents a real challenge to Aboriginal nations and communities. As native peoples you are faced with a supreme test: that of promoting the religious, cultural and social values that will uphold your human dignity and ensure your future well-being. Your sense of sharing, your understanding of human community rooted in the family, the highly valued relationships between your elders and your young people, your spiritual view of creation which calls for responsible care and protection of the environment - all of these traditional aspects of your way of life need to be preserved and cherished.
“This concern with your own native life in no way excludes your openness to the wider community. It is a time for reconciliation, for new relationships of mutual respect and collaboration in reaching a truly just solution to unresolved issues.”
Read the full text here.
It is clear that, while the language and words used in 1984 are very different from what we would use today and the issues in mind were also different, Pope John Paul’s desire to be close to Indigenous people was felt. He reminded them (and all of us) of their dignity as human beings, with rights, freedoms, and responsibilities, acknowledging the difficult history of colonialization they have endured. Though perhaps our awareness of the real legacy of the residential schools was not widely known or fully understood in 1984 and 1987, and the reasons for the disparity between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people in Canada were not as clear as they are today, still, the pope’s desire to uplift these first people of this land and to validate them and all the gifts they have to offer are clear.
There is no doubt that when Pope Francis comes, he will pick up where John Paul II left off.
For more on Pope John Paul II's encounters with Indigenous people in Canada and to see photos, visit the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

pedroIn every blog post, Deacon Pedro takes a particular topic apart, not so much to explore or explain the subject to its fullness, but rather to provide insights that will deepen our understanding of the subject. And don’t worry, at the end of the day he always puts the pieces back together. There are no limits to deaconstructing: Write to him and ask any questions about the faith or Church teaching: [email protected]

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