ABOARD THE PAPAL PLANE — Pope Francis has called the devastation visited on generations of Indigenous people in Canada by European colonizers — carried out with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church — a “genocide” as he returned to Rome after a six-day trip to the North American country.
As well as again denouncing the abuse against Indigenous people, which he had previously called “evil,” the pope noted that the Canada visit had showed that the limitations of his mobility and the advancement of his age would force him to slow down and possibly reduce the tours that have been a hallmark of his papacy.
“I don’t think I can go on with the same rhythm of previous travels,” Francis said during comments to reporters on the papal plane on Friday, after limping to a wheelchair set up for him in the back of the aircraft. Although the pope used a wheelchair throughout the trip, it was his first time using one during his traditional in-flight news conference.
“I think at my age, with these limitations, I think I have to save my energies a little to serve the church,” or consider stepping aside, he said, adding that it would not be a disaster if he were out of the picture. “You can change popes. No problem. But I think have to limit myself a little.”
Asked later if he had thought about retiring, he repeated his usual formulation. “The door is open,” he said, but added that he had not used it yet and had “not thought about this possibility.”
The Abuse of Indigenous Children in Canada and the U.S.
“Also this visit was a little bit a test, no? I see one can’t do trips in this state. I must maybe change the style, reduce,” he said, while noting that it would be God who told him when the time had come, one way or another.
Francis added that he did hope to visit Ukraine, as well as travel to South Sudan and Congo for an Africa trip that he had been forced to cancel because of torn ligaments in his knee. “I have all the good will,” he said. “Let’s see how my leg goes.”
He said that he had decided against an operation on his knee in part because he refused to undergo anesthesia, noting that he still felt the negative effects of it a year after a major intestinal operation last year.
In his news conference, Francis appeared in good spirits, as engaged, gregarious and frustratingly vague and desultory as ever. He talked about how the church needed to keep developing with history, though he would not say specifically what concrete changes it needed to make. He argued that the church’s traditions gave it the strength to move forward, but that people too attached to the traditions, who often called themselves traditionalists, were instead “backwardists.”
“Backwardism is a sin because you don’t go forward with the church,” he said.
He also revealed that the Vatican’s secretariat of state had been behind a terse and unsigned document slamming the brakes on a group of progressives within the influential German church who had advocated for priests to marry, for women to become deacons and for same-sex couples to receive the church’s blessing. Francis said that he had said everything he needed to on the matter in a letter years ago, when he said it was a process that should be led by the Holy Spirit rather than policy priorities.
The pope had called his visit to Canada a “pilgrimage of penance” that focused on his begging forgiveness for the wrongs perpetrated in church-run residential schools that for generations used Christianity as a blade to separate children from their families.
Children in the schools suffered physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Many died, and many languages died, too. Survivors of the schools, their relatives and advocates blame the church for its role in seeking to assimilate those Indigenous cultures and for driving them to the brink of extinction.
Francis spent a week fulfilling a demand by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that he travel to the land of the Indigenous and apologize. He did so at the site of one notorious residential school, in Alberta; in Edmonton churches; at a shrine in the pilgrimage site of Lac Ste. Anne; in Quebec City; and to the Inuit in the Arctic Circle.
On the plane, he said he had not used the words cultural genocide only because the technical term had not come to mind. But, he added, “I described the genocide and asked for forgiveness, forgiveness for this ‘operation.’”
“It is true,” he added, “it was genocide.”
On Friday, the last day of his visit, the pope spoke to a delegation of Indigenous peoples at the archbishop’s residence in Quebec City, telling them that he had come to Canada “despite my physical limitations to take further steps forward with you and for you” and “as a brother, to discover firsthand the good and bad fruit borne by members of the local Catholic family in the course of the years.”
He then headed farther north than he had ever traveled, to Iqaluit, the capital of the Inuit-governed territory of Nunavut, a vast area spanning time zones in the Arctic Circle. He met with survivors inside a school, sat outside on a chair covered in sealskin and faced the Arctic Sea as he listened to throat singers and watched drum dancers.
“Today, too, in this place, I want to tell you how very sorry I am and to ask for forgiveness for the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics,” he said, adding, “How evil it is to break the bonds uniting parents and children.”
Susie Alainga, 49, an Inuit, watched from the back of the crowd in an orange shirt bearing the words, “Every Child Matters.” She said that she had attended not so much for the pope, but rather to give support to survivors of abuse, including her sister. She said that the possibility of rescinding any old papal decrees that provided the rationale for spreading Christianity during the colonial era, as many Indigenous people have called for, would mean little to her.
“It’s too late for that,” she said.