VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis, who has been using a wheelchair because of a bad knee, is going ahead with plans to visit Canada this summer so he can apologize in person for abuse suffered by Indigenous people at the hands of the Catholic church.
The Vatican on Friday announced that Francis will head to Canada on July 24 and visit Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit, a small town in that country's far north. About half the population of Iqaluit is Inuit. The pope leaves Canada on July 29, arriving the next day in Rome.
Last month, Francis made a historic apology for abuses in Canada’s church-run residential schools and expressed “sorrow and shame” for the lack of respect for Indigenous identities, culture and spiritual values.
He said then that he wanted to go to Canada to deliver the apology personally to survivors of misguided Catholic missionary zeal.
Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni said Francis was “accepting the invitation of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities and the Indigenous communities” in making what the Holy See termed an “apostolic journey.”
The Vatican said details of the Canada trip would be made public in the coming weeks. Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith said that the pope will visit the site of at least one former residential school.
Francis had received invitations to visit communities across the country but due to logistics could only visit a small number of them, Smith said.
“What’s really directing this is the pope’s limited ability to get around,” Smith said. “The Vatican chose these three sites for various reasons — seeing how we could have a meaningful impact within a very, very limited scope.”
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau noted that Francis was coming to “formally deliver the Roman Catholic Church’s apology for its role in operating residential schools that caused lasting pain and suffering to Indigenous Peoples in this country.”
“His Holiness’ upcoming visit would not be possible without the bravery and determination of the Survivors, Indigenous leaders, and youth who shared their stories," the prime minister said in a written statement.
Trudeau said that a formal, in-person apology, would be “an important – and necessary – step for the Roman Catholic Church to continue engaging in dialogue with First Nations, Inuit, and Metis in order to advance meaningful reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples in our country.”
“For far too long, this has been a burden carried by Indigenous Peoples alone. I encourage all Canadians to watch this historic moment and reflect on the impacts of colonialism,” Trudeau said of the upcoming papal visit.
On April 1, while Indigenous representatives were visiting the Vatican for private encounters with Francis, the pontiff voiced “sorrow and shame” for the abuse and lack of respect for Indigenous identities, culture and spiritual values in the residential school system.
The Canada trip is being limited in scope geographically because of the pope’s health problems.
“Given the vast landscape of Canada, the limited time for the visit and considering the health of the 85-year-old pontiff,” only three communities will serve as a base for the trip, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said in a statement.
“The locations will limit travel for the Holy Father while still allowing an opportunity for both intimate and public encounters, drawing on participation from all regions of the country,″ the statement said.
With the Canada trip, Francis, 85, will be testing his stamina. After weeks of limping badly due to what the Vatican has said is a badly strained knee ligament, Francis began arriving at some public appearances in a wheelchair, although on Sunday he did stand at a window of the Apostolic Palace to greet the pilgrims and tourists in St. Peter's Square.
On Friday, the pontiff was brought in a wheelchair to a public appearance in a Vatican auditorium which he used to once again decry Russia's war in Ukraine.
Also welcoming the announcement of the trip were Canadian bishops.
“We are immensely grateful that the Holy Father has accepted our invitation to continue the journey of healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples of this land,” Bishop Raymond Poisson, president of the Canadian bishops’ conference said.
Poisson added: “We pray for the health of the Holy Father as we undertaking the intensive planning for this historic visit.”
Even before the Canadian trip, Francis will face another mobility challenge. In early July, he is scheduled to go to Congo and South Sudan, a trip he hopes will foster reconciliation.
Recently, authorities in Lebanon said a hoped-for June visit by the pope wouldn't happen.
Edmonton is home to the second-largest number of Indigenous Peoples who live in urban Canadian centers. In a reference to the sad legacy of abuse, the conference noted that “in addition, 25 residential schools were located in Alberta, the most of any province or territory in Canada.”
During the pope's meetings with Indigenous delegates at the Vatican, Inuit delegates invited him to visit the the northern reaches of Canada.
The bishops said a Quebec City stop would provide a hub for Indigenous peoples of eastern Canada who want to see the pope.
Tracey Lindeman contributed from Gatineau, Quebec.