The Vatican released a detailed itinerary on Thursday for Pope Francis’ much-anticipated trip to Canada, where he plans to apologize for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in an internal school system for Indigenous children that has eroded their culture and many have been subjected to sexual and physical abuse.
The announcement of the schedule for next month’s visit was likely intended to allay concerns that health problems could force the Pope to postpone or even cancel the trip.
This month, Francis postponed a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, two war-ravaged African countries, citing knee problems and the advice of doctors. The cancellation fueled speculation that Francis, 85, could be stepping down soon.
For decades, the Church had resisted calls from Canada’s indigenous communities for a papal apology on Canadian soil for the Church’s role in the residential school system. In 2015, a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission found the system a form of “cultural genocide” and called for a pope visit and apologies.
Although the system was established by the government of Canada in the 19th century, the schools themselves were largely run under contract by churches, most of which were run by Catholics.
In addition to bans on the use of native languages and cultural and religious practices, most schools were underfunded and overcrowded. Malnutrition and disease were common, as were deadly fires. Former students testified before the committee that they were harassed by clergy and laity in the schools. Some of the most chilling testimonies were the burning of babies born to girls who had been sexually abused by priests.
Just over a year ago, the schools came back into the national consciousness after a ground radar search found clues to the remains of hundreds of Indigenous children at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. The technology has since found several indications of unmarked burials in other schools. Last week, the federal government appointed Kimberly Murray, a Mohawk attorney, to assist communities with the searches and their decisions about whether or not to exhume the remains.
The Pope will arrive on July 24 in Alberta, the province that once operated 139 residential schools, the largest number in Canada. He will apologize the next morning in Edmonton, the provincial capital. Mass will be held at the city’s Canadian Football League stadium on July 26.
From Edmonton, the Pope will travel to Quebec City where he will meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among others. His last stop on the way back to Rome is in Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut, the northern area where the Inuit make up the majority of the population.