On Sunday morning, 24 July, Pope Francis boarded the plane that was to take him from Rome’s Fiumicino Airport to Edmonton International Airport in Canada, for the 37th international Apostolic Journey of his pontificate.
Despite being constrained to use a wheelchair and a cane due to the pain he has been experiencing in his knee for some time, the Holy Father made the more than 10-hour flight to embark on “a penitential pilgrimage” and meet and listen to the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
That’s why he chose to start the journey in Edmonton, the capital of Alberta, the Canadian province with the highest number of former residential schools. These government institutions, run by Christian, and particularly, Catholic organizations since the 19th century, were used to forcibly assimilate autochthonous groups, often tearing children from their families and subjecting them to different forms of abuse, violating their right to live according to their ancestral traditions. The last residential school was shut down in 1996.
While on the plane to North America, the Holy Father addressed his usual greetings to media workers accompanying him on the papal flight.
Since 24 July was Grandparents’ Day, the Pope dedicated a few words to grandfathers and grandmothers, whom he said “are the ones who have passed on history, traditions, customs and so many things”. He said it was important that young people “have contact with their grandparents, go back to them, go back to their roots” and “carry them forward, like the tree that takes strength from its roots and carries it forward in flowers and fruit”. The Holy Father also turned his thoughts to “the old men and women religious, the ‘grandparents’ of consecrated life”, saying that they should not be hidden away but valued in their wisdom and “life experience that will help us so much to move forward”.
Arriving in Edmonton a little after 11 am, local time, the Pope was greeted by Governor General of Canada Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous governor general; her husband; and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Inside the airport, a group of indigenous representatives dressed in traditional garb welcomed the Pope with a short ceremony, which included a choreographed performance by a group of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation. Then, wearing the characteristic feathered headdress, George Arcand, the Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty 6, approached Pope Francis and presented him with a medal, which the Pope reverently kissed. The Holy Father also greeted the National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, RoseAnne Archibald, the first woman to hold that position; and a number of survivors of the residential schools. Among them was an elderly woman, also proudly wearing a traditional outfit. Pope Francis kissed her hands in a powerful gesture of closeness and affection toward all Indigenous peoples of Canada.
Edmonton is home to one of the largest indigenous communities living in Canadian urban centres, as well as to Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, which in 1991 became the first church in Canada to be officially designated as a First Nations, Métis and Inuit parish. The community brings together indigenous spiritual traditions and Catholicism in celebration of their unique identity. Their liturgies, for instance, include the burning of plants and processions accompanied by traditional drum beats.
After the simple but moving welcome ceremony at the airport, a car took the Holy Father to the Saint Joseph Seminary, where he spent the night.