Pope Francis has his hands full!

We were always taught that in polite company there are two subjects to avoid---religion and politics.

It’s probably good advice for the faint-hearted but it takes the fun out of writing for therapy as I do in a world that becomes more unhinged by the day,

If something angers or impresses me, I find it helpful to write about it.

It has taken me a few days to put words together on the recent visit by Pope Francis to Canada.

The subject fascinates me because it is both religious and political in nature and invades territory smart people avoid for fear of creating controversy, offence or criticism.

At the outset, in these days of full disclosure and serial public apologies, I feel compelled to admit that I am not a Roman Catholic or an Indigenous person but some of my family and best friends are.

I was raised in a family of Roman Catholics on one side and Methodists on the other---both of whom took their religion very seriously and had little understanding or tolerance for the other. At a young age, I was baptized and sent off to the local Anglican Church as a compromise.

As a result, I was considered neither fish nor fowl and grew up with a little knowledge and a lot of confusion about the religious beliefs and practices of my relatives.

The Catholics seemed to have a lot more fun than the Methodists. There was always music, dance and card playing chez Houles and you could get away with a lot as long as you were fit to attend Mass on Sunday and ate fish on Friday.

My grandmother Barnes banned jewelry, booze, cards and music and her church was a Plain Jane structure shunning the splendour and ritual of its Catholic equivalent.

My mother was raised in Deseronto, I have an aunt by marriage who was born and raised on the neighbouring Tyendinaga Territory and I have a lifelong interest in the Indigenous people.

Which brings me to the recent visit of Pope Francis.

At the end of his six-day visit he seemed to leave in a happy state, scarred perhaps by some of the criticism he received, grateful for the Canadian love and hospitality and hoping he had left our little part of a troubled world a better place.

I was grateful for the effort made by this 85-year-old, pain-ridden soul who had recently cancelled other international trips for health reasons but had mustered the courage and strength to keep his promise to visit Canada and atone for the sins of the church and the people he represents.

Like a friendly old uncle confined to a wheelchair and who was visiting us for probably the last time, he entertained, inspired and begged forgiveness for the failures and actions chalked up against our Indigenous people since well before Confederation. Sadly, much of this wrongdoing was carried out in the name of God.

Thousands of Indigenous Roman Catholics, whose generations of family grew up with the picture of a Pope in their homes and schools, never dreamed they would see a Pope in person. To them, Francis was an inspiration and a rock star.


This plain Pope, who eschews much of the pomp practiced by his predecessors, is widely admired for his humility, dedication to the poor and support for gay people and environmental causes. At times he appeared distracted or perhaps revealing the discomforts of fatigue, his age and his many ailments.

He melted the hardest hearts when his face burst into full joy when his motorcade stopped repeatedly and he took into his arms a series of tiny children whose parents would sleep well knowing their little one had been blessed by the Pope himself.

To others, who boycotted or expressed contempt for the Pope’s presence, his visit evoked memories of abuse that has caused intergenerational trauma and his promises fell short of their demands and expectations.

Pope Francis had promised at a meeting with Indigenous leaders in Rome last April that he would come to Canada and apologize for “the deplorable system” of residential schools, which our federal government funded, 150,000 kids were required to attend, and various churches operated for over a century---the Catholic Church running most of them.

Multiple times during his six days here, Pope Francis apologized for the “evil” (including sexual abuse) suffered by kids in the residential schools.

“I am deeply sorry—sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous people,” Pope Francis said.

He prayed, he pleaded, he expressed shame and remorse and he begged for forgiveness.

There was humility in the air as well. Public turnout was healthy but a far cry from the superstar status enjoyed by former Pope John Paul II in 1984.

In Quebec, the Catholic Church is in huge decline. Churches are closing as attendance dwindles and the stronghold the church once had on Quebec politics and the everyday lives of Quebecers is long since gone.

Each day, a phalanx of commentators parsed each of the Pope’s words and many found them lacking. Specifically, they wanted him to use the word “genocide” to describe the maltreatment and he finally did.

His detractors want church documents released that contain information about the residential school operations. They also want swift action to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, official declarations that were developed centuries ago to justify the colonization of the Americas and stripping Indigenous peoples of their land.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has issued a statement that the bishops will work with the Vatican to address the issue of the rescinding the Doctrine. Some Indigenous leaders demand that their land be returned.

The Vatican, of course, is a city state. Pope Francis is the elected head of the church but he does not unilaterally make the changes being demanded of him. There are strong conservative forces within the hierarchy who will defend the status quo and oppose major change and its legal and financial ramifications.

Pope Francis’s visit to Canada has created increased understanding and support for residential school survivors and generations of Indigenous people who have suffered from colonization.

The heavy media coverage of his visit was also successful in ensuring that more Canadians understand the complexity of reconciliation between the Indigenous population and both the public and governments.

In my view, reconciliation will happen only when the taboo is lifted on some key issues and a full and open public discussion and debate about residential schools is held.

For example, it’s time we corrected history.

It’s plain wrong to blame residential schools on the much maligned first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, who in fact inherited----rather than began---the church-run school system. The schools ran long after Sir John’s death and the last didn’t close until 1996.

What sense does it make to try to erase from our history books Macdonald’s legacy as nation builder and discourage some voices from full and honest participation in the process?

Truth and reconciliation must go hand in hand.

Few question the resolve and commitment of Pope Francis to bring about change but he has returned home to a Vatican that is hidebound in power, ancient tradition and secrecy.

Sadly, it will be many moons before his prayers are answered for reconciliation and church revival and the fair treatment of Indigenous people of Canada and elsewhere.


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