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Canada Oct 10, 2017

Indigenous relations remain high priority for Canadian bishops

By Deborah Gyapong

Bishop Lionel Gendron is seen at the 2017 CCCB plenary in Cornwall, Ont. (Deborah Gyapong / CCN)

OTTAWA (CCN)—Whether Pope Francis comes to Canada or not, Indigenous relations remain a top priority for Canada’s bishops, says the newly elected president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Bishop Lionel Gendron of Saint-Jean-Longueuil, Que., said a possible papal visit was not a major topic at the bishops’ plenary gathering Sept. 25-29, but reconciliation remains high on the agenda.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission helped us to “better discover the sufferings of First Nations people” in the residential schools, Bishop Gendron said.

Though the TRC had a number of Calls to Action, including a demand the Pope come to Canada to apologize on Canadian soil for the schools, Bishop Gendron said the bishops’ response “is not a response to the TRC” and “not a response to the politicians,” but “our response comes from the Gospel, and comes from our mission.”

That represents a change, he said. “We were discussing so many things not according to the Gospel and mission as bishops.”

But now the focus has shifted to focus on reconciliation with an awareness of what First Nations brothers sisters “have suffered and are suffering,” he said.  “The Spirit has done great things among us and is helping us,” he said. 

If at some point the bishops determine the Pope should come, an invitation will be issued, he said. “If the Pope wants to come, we will welcome him,” Bishop Gendron said.

The bishops are in a process of “accompaniment and discernment” to find out what the “Spirit is asking of us at this moment” from a “pastoral point of view,” he said.

He noted that when Pope John Paul II visited in 1984, dioceses had groups of people tasked with planning the visit. Pope Francis realizes those numbers of personnel aren't available now, Bishop Gendron said. The previous CCCB President Douglas Crosby told Canadian Catholic News that papal visits are enormously expensive, and discussions are ongoing with various levels of government and other agencies.

Archbishop Donald Bolen of Regina, who was the most outspoken in favour of a papal visit among the Western Canadian bishops when they made their ad limina visits to Rome last spring, said he is pleased with the direction the CCCB is taking.

“I think the conference is engaging as deeply as ever in its history with Indigenous relations,” Archbishop Bolen said. “It’s a priority. It occupies our time and energy and we’re making steps together.”

“I don’t know that I could have said that a year ago,” he added.

Archbishop Bolen, who was in Ottawa Sept. 29 to receive the Alumnus of the Year award from Saint Paul University, drew the attention of Pope Francis last spring, according to the Apostolic Nuncio to Canada.

Archbishop Luigi Bonazzi told the reception in Archbishop Bolen’s honour that during his annual half-hour audience with the Holy Father in June, Pope Francis mentioned a young bishop who had spoken “in a clear, luminous way” about the importance of reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous peoples during the Western bishops’ visit with him.

Archbishop Bonazzi told him that was Archbishop Bolen of Regina. “A very good bishop!” the Pope replied.

While Indigenous relations and reconciliation remain a “major priority” for the bishops, “the part Pope Francis will play on this has to unfold on the Holy See side of things and unfold in discussions over time,” Archbishop Bolen said. “Our focus isn’t reduced to the role of Pope Francis.”

Instead, the CCCB is “investing, time, energy, commitment” and resources to reconciliation and has yet to determine exactly “what shape that takes,” he said.

One area the Canadian bishops are focusing on is supporting the six dioceses of Canada’s North: Whitehorse; Mackenzie–Fort Smith; Churchill–Hudson Bay; Moosonee; Grouard–McLennan; and Keewatin–Le Pas. The former missionary dioceses under the Vatican Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples are now regular dioceses.

“Because of the transfer ... we are building relationships with these northern dioceses and their peoples on a level that has never happened before and that’s a beautiful thing,” Archbishop Bolen said.

“In my diocese and every diocese, good discussions are going on on what it means to be in relationship, or be a twin with a diocese or part of a diocese,” he said. 

“I think there’s some excitement about this," he said. “It’s not seen as a burden but it’s about a relationship we didn’t have or only had in a minimal way.”

To that end, Archbishop Bolen is planning a visit to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories. “For me, like many bishops, the north is kind of a new territory for me, I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about the north,” he said.

The northern dioceses rely on support from Catholic Missions in Canada and will now need greater help from richer dioceses in Canada’s south. During the plenary, several bishops spoke in solidarity with the northern dioceses and explored ways of twinning dioceses or parts of dioceses.