SAINTE-ANNE-DE-BEAUPRÉ, July 29 — Pope Francis celebrated mass Thursday at the oldest Catholic shrine in North America, where he was faced with a brief protest on the fourth day of a visit to Canada as he seeks to reset the Church’s relationship with Indigenous people.
Thousands of people, many of them Indigenous, were on hand as the 85-year-old pontiff arrived at the shrine of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre under heavy security and greeted them from his popemobile.
Inside the shrine, just in front of the altar and a few feet away from Francis, demonstrators unfurled a banner as mass began which read: “Rescind the doctrine” — referring to the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century papal edicts that empowered European powers to colonise non-Christian lands and people.
The doctrine became the basis for legitimising slavery as well as European claims over both Indigenous people and lands — the foundations on which countries such as Canada and the United States were built.
The writing on the banner was only on the side facing away from the pope, and it was calmly removed shortly after.
But it was demonstrative of the work that many Indigenous people, while hailing the pope’s trip as historic, say the Church has left to do.
Francis came to Canada to apologise for the Church’s role in the abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run schools.
From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada’s government sent about 150,000 children into 139 residential schools run by the Church, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture in a failed policy of forced assimilation.
Many were physically and sexually abused, and thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.
Indigenous leaders have drawn a straight line between the Doctrine of Discovery and the formation of the residential schools centuries later.
The pope apologised for the abuse as his trip began on Monday. For many Indigenous people, his plea for forgiveness has been overwhelming.
Desneiges Petiquay said his visit was a “message of hope.”
The 54-year-old housewife from the Manawan reserve was in the front row at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre.
“This pope, he knows we exist here, he recognises us,” she told AFP. “Yesterday, I saw him up close, it touched me here,” she added, putting her hand on her heart.
But many others say there is more to do. “Personally, it wasn’t enough,” said Abigail Brook, a 23-year-old member of Saint Mary First Nations, regretting in particular that the pope did not specifically mention sexual abuse.
During the mass at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, on the shores of the St Lawrence River some 30 kilometers (18 miles) from Quebec City in Canada’s east, the pope said the Church was asking “burning questions… on its difficult and demanding journey of healing and reconciliation.”
“In confronting the scandal of evil and the Body of Christ wounded in the flesh of our Indigenous brothers and sisters, we too have experienced deep dismay; we too feel the burden of failure,” he said.
“Why did all this happen? How could this happen in the community of those who follow Jesus?”
Later, the pope will deliver a homily at the Notre Dame Cathedral in Quebec City.
On Friday, the last day of his six-day trip, he will stop in Iqaluit, in the Arctic territory of Nunavut.
Francis has appeared weakened since the beginning of this trip, and is using a wheelchair because of knee pain. — AFP