Canada’s bishops have voiced hope that when delegations of Canadian Indigenous meet with Pope Francis next week, the meetings will be an opportunity to reflect on the tragedies of the past and take steps toward further healing and reconciliation.

Speaking to Crux, Johnathan Lesarge, a spokesman for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), expressed sorrow and remorse for the trauma experienced by Indigenous communities, and for the church’s role in the suffering they endured through the residential school system.

The bishops, Lesarge said, are “honored” that the pope has decided to meet with Indigenous representatives during individual and group audiences at the Vatican, “where they have the opportunities to tell their stories and share their perspectives.”

“We expect that these encounters will allow the Holy Father to meaningfully address both the ongoing trauma and legacy of suffering faced by Indigenous people to this day, as well as the role of the Catholic Church in the residential school system,” Lesarge said.

A joint delegation of Canadian bishops and three different Indigenous communities in Canada will travel to Rome March 28 – April 1, where they will hold both individual and group meetings with Pope Francis.

Among the Indigenous communities represented are the Assembly of First Nations (AFN), the Métis National Council, and the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami. Delegates include Elders, “knowledge keepers,” residential school survivors, and young people from across Canada.

The visit has been in the works for several years but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a statement published last week, the AFN said they see their meeting with the pope as “an important step as we continue to address the Catholic Church’s culpability about genocide and complicity in what many First Nations children experienced in the institutions.”

They also said they will push for a papal apology on Canadian soil for abuses children suffered at the residential schools, and will ask Francis to rescind the papal bull issued by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 authorizing Spain and Portugal to colonize the Americas and its Native communities as subjects.

In response to an AFN statement, Lesarge on behalf of the CCCB voiced “profound remorse for the Church’s role in the residential school system.”

“We have acknowledged and apologized for the suppression of Indigenous languages, culture and spirituality, and the failure to respect the rich history and traditions of Indigenous peoples,” he said, noting that the bishops have also apologized for the physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, cultural, and sexual abuse of children who attended the schools.

“We have sorrowfully acknowledged and apologized for the historical and ongoing trauma that has affected Indigenous people to this day,” they said, and reaffirmed their rejection of and resistance “in the strongest possible way” to the ideas associated with the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery.”

The “Doctrine of Discovery” is a concept emanating from a series of papal bulls issued in the 1400s which, like the one issued by Alexander VI, used discovery as both a legal and moral justification for the colonization of sovereign Indigenous Nations in Canada.

With respect to these bulls and the one specifically mentioned by AFN published in 1493, “the pope will discern how to proceed, although we know that he shares our values on the inherent rights and dignity of Indigenous people and expect his comments will demonstrate a strong level of respect and contrition,” Lesarge said.

Historical tensions between the Catholic Church and Indigenous communities, specifically residential school survivors, flared up last summer when the remains of 215 children were discovered on the grounds of the former Indian Residential School in Kamloops, prompting searches at other schools that unearthed hundreds more bodies.

Given that around three-quarters of Canada’s 130 residential schools were run by Catholic missionary orders at the time they were operative, the church in Canada has faced enormous backlash and pressures for an apology.

While the Canadian bishops have issued a collective apology, as have individual religious orders in charge of the schools, Pope Francis, to date, has not. There has been speculation that he might make some form of public apology during the visit of the delegations, or during a papal visit to Canada.

Francis has expressed his willingness to visit Canada as part of the country’s healing and reconciliation process and is expected to make this apology while there if the visit happens.

If he does so, it would be a direct response to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which at the conclusion of its work in 2015 issued several action points for reconciliation with Indigenous communities, one of which is for the pope to make an apology on Canadian soil.

In his statement, Lesarge noted that the CCCB has taken several steps to strengthen the church’s relationship with Indigenous communities over the past year, including a $30 million national fundraising pledge and a firm commitment “to continue the work of providing records that will assist in memorialization of those buried in unmarked graves.”

Several initiatives aimed at educating clergy, consecrated men and women, and lay faithful on Indigenous cultures and spirituality have also been launched, he said.

“We believe that this delegation has the opportunity to be a significant milestone for this work and we pray it will inform and inspire a new era of healing and reconciliation,” Lesarge said.