Pope Francis leads reconciliation mass at Quebec City-area pilgrimage site

By Brittany Hobson and Sidhartha Banerjee

Pope Francis is hosting a reconciliation-themed mass in Quebec before a congregation made up largely of residential school survivors and other Indigenous people, a day after expressing shame and sorrow for the role played by Catholic institutions in the schools.

Organizers say many of the speakers who will deliver readings at the service Thursday are Indigenous, and the Pope’s chasuble – the outermost garment worn by Roman Catholic priests during mass – was specially designed by a local Huron-Wendat artist.

Hundreds of people made their way to the shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupre, east of Quebec City, to listen to Pope Francis lead the second mass of his Canadian tour, which he has called a pilgrimage of penance.

Many of the people in the pews at the pilgrimage site were dressed in orange to represent the Every Child Matters movement – remembering the children lost in residential schools and the survivors. Some attendees wore floral scarfs, and elders in wheelchairs sat in a section to the left near the stage. Organizers said there were about 1,400 people in the church.

The site is one of the oldest and most popular places of pilgrimage in North America and annually attracts more than one million visitors. Organizers had said more than 16,000 people were expected inside and outside, though attendance during the Pope’s previous events in Alberta fell short of expectations.

Jackie Gull-Barney, from the Cree First Nation of Waswanipi, in north-central Quebec, said before the service that she was hoping to find a feeling of healing and peace after seeing the Pope.

Gull-Barney said her family was “split in half” by residential schools, after she and two of her siblings were sent to English-language schools in Ontario, and two younger siblings learned French at schools in Quebec.

She said she felt the Pope’s apology to Indigenous people in Maskwacis, Alta was “very humble and very sincere.” But like others, she’s interested in knowing what concrete steps will follow.

“What will happen after the apology?” she said. “Is there going to be programs and places we can go for assistance and help to carry on?”

Quebec Premier Francois Legault told reporters outside the shrine that many of Quebec’s values come from the Catholic Church, including a sense of mutual aid.

But he said the church was also involved in the residential school system, which was a dark period of Quebec and Canadian history. The premier added that he would use his private meeting with the Pope Friday to ask him to hand over to Indigenous communities any documents about residential schools.

Later Thursday, the Pope is to attend vespers, a service of evening prayer, with church officials at the Cathedral-Basilica of Notre-Dame de Quebec.

Francis arrived in Quebec City on Wednesday afternoon and held private meetings with Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the historic Citadelle. He later addressed a small room of Indigenous dignitaries and residential school survivors.

The Pope asked forgiveness for the harm done by the policies of assimilation carried out in residential schools. He expressed deep shame and sorrow for the part different local Roman Catholic institutions played in the “deplorable” system.

It was the second papal apology on Canadian soil for Francis. On Monday, he begged forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples,” during a speech in Maskwacis, Alta.

Trudeau said Thursday that the Pope’s trip to Canada was a “step toward healing,” but acknowledged that some Indigenous leaders want to see Francis go further.

“His Holiness’ message, the church’s message that this is a beginning of a process is encouraging, has been helpful to many in their healing, but there’s a lot of work to do,” Trudeau told reporters outside the church. “And the government has been there for a number of years. It’s good to see the church stepping up.”

Pope Francis is to leave Quebec City Friday and make a brief stop in Iqaluit before heading home to Vatican City.