Pope Francis’ trip to Canada is difficult to categorize. On the one hand, Pope Francis went to ask for forgiveness for an alleged collaboration of Catholics in managing residential schools, or those state schools that, between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, took over the education of indigenous children, separating them from their families—causing them to lose their culture, religion, and bonds. On the other hand, Pope Francis was cautious in his speeches to define this problem as systemic, a State more than a pastoral issue, resulting from a colonial mentality that was not that of the Church. Pope Francis went further: he said that the Church is synonymous with reconciliation.
How, then, reconcile these two poles of the journey? Perhaps the most accurate description is that of a two-sided or two-speed journey. And it is a description that also applies to the entire pontificate. The trip to Canada is, after all, a mirror of the pontificate.
What would the two speeds be?
The first speed is that of Pope Francis. Pope Francis is Latin American, and he comes from those countries where the indigenous culture has been eradicated by colonialism. It is no coincidence that Pope Francis made it a point of his pontificate to look to a reconciled Latin American continent and a cultural point of view. It is Simon Bolivar’s dream but combined with the principle of non-assimilation.
The model of Pope Francis is Our Lady of Guadalupe, who speaks the Amerindians’ language and comes to San Juan Diego respecting his culture. “Maria has always been a mestizo mother,” said Pope Francis during his 2018 trip to Peru.
Hence, the denunciation of colonization was central to the pontificate of Pope Francis. It is a rebuke that goes even further, to the desire to have an “original source” and not a derived theology in Latin America. This theology considers the differences between the Amerindians and the cultural differences of the Latin Americans.
The history of residential schools has impacted Pope Francis. He has seen there everything that has been experienced in his land. Pope Francis reacted his way, that is, by taking charge of the matter personally. It is not the first time in history that a theme very dear to a pope has become a central theme for the whole Church.
With Pope Francis, there is also a further step. The Pope is alone in charge, and it is he alone who makes the decisions. And the Pope who apologizes is the Pope who takes everything upon himself. In a certain sense, a separation is created between the Pope and the Church. The Church is considered to be in error, the Pope is at the center of attention and the actual engine of everything. Not actually true, for obvious reasons. But this is the general perception.
This is where the second speed comes into play: that of the Church as an institution. Interestingly, in the case of the trip to Canada, Pope Francis accepted the institution’s point of view. He said that the truth must not be hidden to defend restitution. However, his speeches, when read carefully, tell a different story.
From the very beginning, Pope Francis highlighted the damage caused by colonialism. He asked for forgiveness for the behavior of Catholics. He defined it as shameful and unacceptable, but he did not fail to place it in a broader context: colonization. It is a question of applying the hermeneutics of the time to situations. No hiding.
In St. Anne de Lac, the Pope praised the work of the missionaries in a place where many indigenous people have converted, and many natives go on pilgrimage. There the Oblates carried out an extraordinary piece of inculturation, taking the traditions of the indigenous people and then making them part of the Catholic tradition without losing the doctrine.
Then, there was the speech to the authorities, in which Pope Francis reiterated his apologies but did not fail to point fingers at the State. First of all, he reiterated that there is a systemic responsibility. Then he highlighted that there is still that colonization of the past, but today it is ideological colonization, which wants to impose a way of living.
These are words of impact in a society like the Canadian,, where the laws on abortion and euthanasia are very forward leaning and where the bishops have been fighting for years against the galloping secularization created by the quiet revolution in Quebec.
Not only. The Pope reiterated the duty of the Church to take a position and participate in the construction of the common good and noted that this new ideology leads to a cancel culture. The same cancel culture led to destruction of churches when news of the unmarked graves found in Kamloops spread. The message is clear: reconciliation and forgiveness, but without ideologies and without denying the role of the Church.
Indeed, referring to the poor who knock on parish doors, the Pope has indirectly criticized the Canadian social system. Because it is the Church, once again, that takes charge over the marginalized and the problems of the people, not the State.
A speech, in short, very refined and full of messages. Which also shows some political cunning by Pope Francis. Populist in the way he presents himself to people, more nuanced when he has to speak to the authorities. In some cases, the speeches seem to have internal contradictions. But this is also a characteristic of the Pope.
So perhaps this trip to Canada also serves to see the pontificate in more detail. Maybe Pope Francis, noting the ferocity of Canadian public opinion, wanted to avoid another spotlight case with this trip. A pragmatic choice, faithful to the saying that reality is superior to the idea. One way of facing what the Pope called the altar of hypocrisy.