OTTAWA (CCN) — Canada’s bishops are being tight-lipped regarding a possible papal visit in the wake of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s request that Pope Francis apologize in Canada for the church’s role in the residential school scandal.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops will not say whether it has issued a formal invitation to the pope or may do so in the future. Although individual or regional bishops, or governments, may issue invitations, standard protocol calls for a formal invitation to come from a national bishop’s conference.
“For the invitation to the pope, the issue has been discussed during the ad limina visit of the bishops in the recent months,” said CCCB communications director Rene Leprise in an email. “That’s all we have to report for now.”
CCCB president Bishop Douglas Crosby of Hamilton declined to be interviewed for this story.
The Saskatchewan bishops issued an invitation last December for the pope to make a pastoral visit to their province in order to comply with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s call for a papal apology on Canadian soil. In March, following the Western Canadian bishops’ ad limina visit with Pope Francis, Regina Archbishop Donald Bolen told journalists the issue of an apology was raised. The archbishop declined to be interviewed for this story.
Former CCCB president and Archbishop-emeritus James Weisgerber said he thinks Pope Francis would “want to have an invitation from the Canadian bishops as a whole,” because “that’s the diplomatic way of doing things.”
“This pope has such a high regard and places such importance on conferences of bishops and the whole idea of subsidiarity of the church,” he said. “So a conference is that level of authority within a country.
“We haven’t heard anything official from the leadership of the church,” Weisgerber said.
Stressing that he no longer is involved in the inside discussions of the conference, the archbishop-emeritus said he thought a “consulting process” was going on among the bishops to examine all the aspects of a papal visit, including practical considerations.
“Having the pope come to Canada is an exceedingly expensive affair,” Weisgerber said. He recalled that when Pope John Paul II visited in 1984, the church in Manitoba was left with a $5-million bill. The CCCB had a deficit exceeding $30 million after World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002.
“The CCCB has no money,” so that amount was “levied onto the dioceses,” Weisgerber said.
“I suspect if (the papal visit) is only for an apology, the church would be responsible for most of the costs,” he said. “If there were other kinds of events going on, other
people involved would be involved in paying for it.
“Of course, it would be much more dramatic if he came simply to apologize,” he said. “There’s a lot of discernment involved in this.”
The Prime Minister’s Office would not answer questions about whether the federal government would pick up the tab for a papal visit, or require cost-sharing or other arrangements.
As CCCB president, Weisgerber helped organize a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI in 2009 for the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief Phil Fontaine and about 30 indigenous leaders. The pope apologized during the meeting for suffering and damage caused by the residential schools.
While Weisgerber and Fontaine do not wish to minimize Benedict’s apology, they both say it occurred before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report in 2015.
At the time of Benedict’s apology, the consciousness and knowledge of the damage residential schools had done was “fairly limited,” Weisgerber said. “The situation has changed very much.”
Though he believes the apology was genuine, Weisgerber believes it was not heard as well as it needed to be.
“From the point of view of a new start, I think it would be good if the pope would apologize.”
Fontaine said he was pleased that Trudeau made the request for a papal apology when he met pope Francis in the Vatican on May 29.
“It would be a wonderful gesture,” he said. “I wouldn’t say anything to take away from the most recent effort to achieve one of the 94 Calls to Action. (The apology) is one of them.”
Fontaine stressed the key role of the AFN in the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA), and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. He said that, rather than Trudeau, it “might have been more appropriate” if AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde had gone to the Vatican to ask the pope to come to Canada to apologize.
“The Catholic Church is the defendant in this whole matter,” he said, noting the government set the residential schools policy, but the churches carried it out. “The aggrieved party was absent from this very important discussion.”
Bellegarde would not be interviewed for this story but issued a statement that said the AFN “remains steadfast” in seeking a papal apology as well as a renunciation by the church of the 15th century Doctrine of Discovery “as an illegal and racist doctrine.”
“We appreciate Prime Minister Trudeau asking Pope Francis to come to Canada to acknowledge and apologize to residential school survivors, something the Assembly of First Nations has also requested of His Holiness,” said Belgrade’s statement. “This will do much for healing and closure and will promote reconciliation between Canadians and First Nation peoples in Canada.”
Pierre Baribeau, a lawyer who represented the 50 Catholic Entities — dioceses and religious congregations — involved in the IRSSA, was also present at Pope Benedict’s 2009 apology. The only non-indigenous, non-clerical or religious person present, he believes “the apology has already been made.”
“I’m a bit flabbergasted that it has become such a focus point, but politics is politics,” he said.
“Mr. Harper already expressed his apologies on behalf of the Canadian public,” Baribeau said. “Does that mean any new prime minister has to renew this apology?
“Why not take action on what has been said and build upon it?” he asked.
As for whether a papal apology would open up new litigation against Catholic dioceses or religious congregations, Baribeau said, “It’s impossible to say yes or no.”
“It would depend on the content (of the apology,)” he said.
“I don’t know much about all those legal things,” Weisgerber said. “Some people are afraid of that. I don’t think those are things that concern the pope very much.”
“Pope Francis does what Pope Francis thinks he wants to do,” said Gerry Kelly, an expert adviser to the 50 Catholic Entities and former director of the Aboriginal Affairs secretariat at the CCCB. “I think (the visit) is still possible.”
“It would be a real statement of solidarity and support for him to make this gesture without all the public celebration of the 150th anniversary,” he said. Kelly said he knows the issue of the papal apology has been at the forefront since 2015 when the TRC Calls to Action came out. “I know it was conveyed immediately,” he said.