The Argentina-born Pope Francis Sunday arrived in Canada despite his walking impairment on a mission to seek the forgiveness of native communities for abuses perpetrated at education institutes run by the Catholic Church, which have been unearthed recently.
The pontiff landed Sunday in Edmonton after a ten-hour flight that had departed Sunday morning from Rome's Fiumicino airport. It is the first leg of the Pope's 6-day trip where he will ask forgiveness from the Inuit, Métis, and other native nations for the complicity of the Catholic Church in the system of boarding schools for aboriginal children.
The Pontiff was welcomed at the airport by Mary Simon, the first indigenous woman to hold the office of Governor General of Canada (Queen Elizabeth's representative) and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Francis was also greeted by other church, Indigenous and political dignitaries. On a more protocolar note, the official welcoming ceremony will take place July 27 in Quebec.
Pope Francis is to meet Monday with dignitaries of the native nations such as the Métis and Enuit in Maskwacis, 70 kilometers south of the city of Edmonton. In the afternoon, the Pope will go to Sacred Heart Church in Edmonton and hold a meeting with Indigenous Peoples and Parish Community Members. The Pope's public appearances will be limited to one hour because of his advanced age and physical limitations, it was announced after Francis had to postpone his trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan scheduled for earlier this month because of mobility problems in his knee.
Francis is the second pontiff to visit Canada and will make what is the fourth apostolic trip by a pope to the country. John Paul II toured Canada in September 1984, returned exclusively to meet with indigenous people in 1987 at Fort Simpson, and also attended WYD in Toronto in 2002, where the largest crowd in history to date gathered: nearly 800,000 people.
Pope Francis described this journey as a penitential trip aimed at advancing reconciliation with Indigenous people over the lasting harm suffered in residential schools. He told reporters on the plane before it landed in Edmonton that the six-day visit must be handled with care.
I hope, with God's grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken. Please accompany me with prayer, said a message on the Pope's Twitter account.
An elevator was used to get the Pope off the plane. Then he was driven to the hangar where he met Trudeau and Simon, albeit in a wheelchair.
Francis kissed the hand of residential school survivor Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as she welcomed the Pope along with Grand Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60% of the schools were run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Earlier this year, Indigenous delegates had told the Pope at the Vatican that they wanted an apology on Canadian soil.