VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Pope Francis will visit Canada to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and apologize to indigenous peoples for historic clerical sex abuse in Catholic residential schools.
Despite the ailing pontiff's knee problems, which forced him to cancel a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan scheduled in the same month, the Holy See Press Office confirmed Thursday the pontiff would visit Canada from July 24–29.
As part of a grueling schedule, Francis will address two meetings of First Nations, Métis and Inuit at Maskwacis and Edmonton in the morning and afternoon on July 25 and a third meeting with indigenous peoples in Québec two days later.
The pontiff will receive a delegation of indigenous peoples at Abp. Gérald Cyprien Lacroix's residence in Québec the morning of July 29 and fly in the afternoon to the traditional Inuit city of Iqaluit for a private meeting with students at former residential Catholic schools.
Before flying back to Rome, Francis will host a public meeting with young people and elders in the primary school square in Iqaluit.
"The purpose of his trip is very specific. He comes to meet the Aboriginal peoples in order to pursue a process of listening and reconciliation," the Québec archdiocese stated, announcing a "Dialogue Circles" program to facilitate "listening to indigenous voices."
"The Holy Father will thus be able to be close to those who attended residential schools as well as to their descendants, marked by injuries and their impacts," the statement added.
Catholics are being encouraged to prepare for the papal visit by joining the "Dialogue Circles" program, which consists of 11 sessions prepared by the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice.
The sessions cover a wide range of topics including indigenous creation stories, racism, injustice, inequality and deconstructing stereotypes. The program calls for dismantling the "Doctrine of Christian Discovery" and creating pathways to decolonization.
Francis will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic who regularly receives Holy Communion despite his strongly held anti-Catholic positions on abortion, homosexuality and transgenderism.
Trudeau urged the pope to formally apologize to indigenous communities following a wave of burning and vandalism of Catholic churches last July.
From 1831 until 1996, Canada's residential school system separated indigenous children from their families, subjecting them to malnourishment and physical and sexual abuse in what the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called "cultural genocide."
On April 1, Francis apologized to indigenous leaders present at the Vatican, saying: "I ask God's forgiveness, and I would like to tell you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in apologizing to you."
Indigenous leaders have repeatedly demanded the pope issue his apology on Canadian soil. "We accept this apology as a gesture of good faith that acknowledges he will come to our home and to visit with our families to formally apologize to all our family members," Chief Gerald Antoine of the Assembly of First Nations told a press conference.
Among indigenous peoples in Canada, 506,000 identify as Catholic, 134,000 as Anglicans, 59,000 as members of the United Church and 36,000 as Pentecostals. About 63,000 practice Aboriginal spirituality and one in five claim no religion.
The pope will celebrate Holy Mass for the faithful on two occasions: at the Commonwealth Stadium, Edmonton and at the National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Québec. He will also meet fellow Jesuits at the archbishop's residence in Québec.
International persecution consultant Dr. Martin Parsons told Church Militant the pope's visit to Africa would have better served the cause of the persecuted Church.
Francis canceled his visit scheduled for July 2–7 to the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan "at the request of his doctors in order not to jeopardize the results of the therapy that he is undergoing for his knee," Vatican Press Office director Matteo Bruni said.
Church Militant contacted the Holy See Press Office asking why the Holy Father was willing to undertake such a demanding trip to Canada after canceling the African trip, especially since the cause of persecuted Christians in Africa seemed more pressing. Moreover, Francis has himself emphasized his concern for people on the so-called peripheries.
The Holy See Press Office did not respond to Church Militant's request for comment as of press time.
Over half of the DRC — approximately 35 million souls — is Catholic, with six archdioceses and 41 dioceses. Christians face high levels of violence from Muslim militants, who are particularly active in the eastern part of the country, according to Open Doors.
In 2021, the government announced a state of siege in the northeastern provinces to curb the violence perpetrated by the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an Islamic group working to ethnically cleanse Christians and supplant them with radical Muslims.
Unlike Canada, which is experiencing an implosion of the Catholic Church, Christianity is growing in the DRC at 3.36% annually, while the annual growth rate for the Catholic Church is around 3.44%.
During the Second Congo War (1998–2003), the Commission for Africa described the Catholic Church as "the only reasonable coherent organization in the country, which functioned as a post office in the absence of a national postal service."
While the conflict claimed over 6 million lives, more than 800,000 people from the DRC live as refugees in neighboring countries, and 4.5 million people are displaced within the country.
Chatham House analyst Ben Shepherd notes, "The Catholic Church is pretty much the only institution in the DRC with the moral authority to act as a sort of referee and impose some real pressure on the political elite."
"And as the Congolese state is degraded, the Catholic Church has been left as basically the one national organization with the reach and resources to provide anything at all for the population," Shepherd adds.
Persecution of Christians has significantly lessened after South Sudan became an independent nation and separated from the predominantly Arab Muslim Sudan in 2011, Parsons told Church Militant.
"Christian leaders argued that a prophecy concerning Cush from the book of Isaiah had foretold South Sudan's independence, and a draft of the national anthem referred to the country as Cush, Eden and a land of milk and honey," writes Christopher Tounsel in Chosen Peoples: Christianity and Political Imagination in South Sudan.
Catholics constitute 39.7% of the population, followed by Anglicans and Eritrean Orthodox, Ethiopian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox and Greek Orthodox.
Pope Francis kissed the feet of the nation's Catholic president, Kiir Mayardit, when the politician visited the Vatican for a "peace retreat" with leaders of rebel forces in 2019.
Francis was expected to make an "ecumenical pilgrimage of peace" with Anglican archbishop Justin Welby and Church of Scotland moderator Iain Greenshields to meet president Mayardit and five vice presidents to pursue the commitments made at the Vatican retreat.