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In communion with the Pope: Thoughts on being part of the Papal Mass at Commonwealth

Pope's penitential pilgrimage to Canada included an open-air mass at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium

It was an early start for Albertans wanting to get to Commonwealth Stadium on a warm Tuesday morning, for a special Mass with Pope Francis as part of the Walking Together visit to Canada. As a born and raised Polish Catholic, and with a husband and children who are Metis, the event was especially significant.

We took a park and ride shuttle with a local school bus company, where some five buses loaded up for the half-hour ride to Commonwealth. Once there, lines snaked all around the entries, with mass-goers, young and old, waiting patiently to get through security and into the stadium.

There were far less people in the stadium than the expected 65,000--it looked more like 35,000. But there was a respectful, serene vibe in the stadium--a feeling like being inside a church: definitely not a festive or high-energy feeling. Those of us who aren't residential school Survivors understood the point of the Papal Visit, and it wasn't for Canadian Catholics to rejoice the Holy Father had come to see them.

All along, the Pope said this was a pilgrimage to issue an apology to survivors; a penitential visit to hear and honour those that suffered from the Church's role in the spiritual, cultural, physical and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit and Metis children.

Seeing the Pope circle the field in his Pope-mobile to cheering crowds, stopping to kiss babies held up for him to bless was an exciting moment before mass began. Cheers came from the stands and an Indigenous drum group played for his arrival. 

But as the service started, attendees likely found the Pope's message unexpected and lacking, given that he started his tour at Maskwacis the day before by issuing a personal apology--though not one for the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. At that day's event, he begged for forgiveness for evil acts committed.

"In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the sins of her children … I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples," Pope Francis said.

But with that the goal of the visit, the theme of Pope Francis' sermon at the open-air mass seemed incomplete. The mass was held on the feast day of St. Anne, who was the grandmother of Jesus. It is a day of particular reverence for Indigenous Catholics. 

Referring to the importance of grandparents and the elderly, cultivating our roots and bearing fruits, and honouring the generations before us, the message was a gentle one to the thousands gathered, but it did little to help heal generational wounds of those who wanted more from the Pontiff; more of an apology from the Church as a whole.

"In the fog of forgetfulness that overshadows our turbulent times, it is essential to cultivate our roots, to pray for and with our forebears, to dedicate time to remember and guard their legacy," Francis said in Spanish through an interpreter. "This is how a family tree grows; this is how the future is built."

For the Catholic faithful, the mass was familiar and comforting--hymns, holy communion dispersed efficiently by priests and deacons from points all around the stadium--the feeling was that of a quiet reverence and appreciation to be in the same place as the Pope. 

In the end, there was little buying of t-shirts or the few Vatican-sanctioned trinkets for sale at the stadium. It seemed those who attended understood what the visit was meant to be about--understanding, connection, forgiveness, healing.

In the days that followed, Catholics saw the growing discontent among those who waited to hear more from Pope Francis on his cross-country tour. Specifically, many wanted the Pope to publicly rescind the Doctrine of Discovery during his visit; a document which was used to support the idea that Europeans could claim land not belonging to them, which paved the way for the Indian Act and residential schools.

Some have said the Pope's visit and apology meant a lot to some, but it also didn't mean anything to others. 

Along his journey in Canada, the Pope prayed for "a future in which the history of violence and marginalization suffered by our Indigenous brothers and sisters is never repeated. Young and old, grandparents and grandchildren, all together. Let us move forward together, and together, let us dream."