John Paul II: ‘I come to proclaim your dignity and support your destiny'

Pope Francis travels on Sunday to Canada for his 37th Apostolic Journey where he will primarily meet with representatives of the indigenous peoples who live in Canada. On several occasions, his predecessor Pope John Paul II met with representatives of the indigenous peoples living in Canada, praising their culture, upholding their rights, and acknowledging that, ‘the hour has come to bind up wounds, to heal all divisions’.

Compiled by Sr. Bernadette M. Reis, fsp

Pope Francis is about to begin what he has described as a "penitential pilgrimage" to Canada. In the background, however, are two other visits of Pope Saint John Paul II in 1984 and 1987. He undertook his first Apostolic Journey to Canada in 1984, landing in Québec on 9 September and returning to Rome from Ottawa on 20 September. During his twelve-day journey through Canada he met with representatives of indigenous peoples who live in Canada on a few occasions in which he manifested his respect and admiration for their culture and defended their rights.

The Church is your Church

On September 10, the day after his arrival in Canada, Pope John Paul met with a group of indigenous peoples and Inuit at the National Shrine of Saint Anne de Beaupré in Québec, a centuries-old place of worship and pilgrimage in North America. Represented among those present were ten different national groups. Given the importance of their elders, indigenous peoples have a particularly strong devotion to Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus.

In the English portion of his address, Pope John Paul II spoke of the importance of “reconciliation between peoples”. “If we truly believe that God created us in his image”, he said, “we shall be able to accept one another with our differences”. He added that Jesus alone can “break the chains” of any form of selfishness. The most beautiful part of his speech explained the nature of the “Church of Jesus Christ…your Church…. She is like those ‘hiding places’ that your ancestors constructed all along the routes of their travels, so that no one might be caught without provisions”. Then, speaking in English, French and “in some of your own languages”, Pope John Paul drew “closer…to express to you my fraternal affection”.

The Church is the ASADJIGAN of God for you (Algonquin)
The Church is the SHESHEPETAN of God for you (Montagnais)
The Church is the SHISHITITAGN of God for you (Cree)
The Church is the TESHITITAGAN of God for you (Atikamek)
The Church is the IA-IEN-TA-IEN-TA-KWA of God for you (Mohawk)
The Church is the APATAGAT of God for you (Micmac)

Listen to the English portion of Pope John Paul’s address at the National Shrine of St Anne de Beaupré, 10 September 1984

Christ is Himself Indian

Pope John Paul visited the Shrine of the Canadian Martyrs in Huronia, Canada on 15 September where he celebrated the Liturgy of the Word. This was his second meeting with representatives of the indigenous populations. A total of about 100,000 members of the faithful took part in the event in the square in front of the Shrine.

The Holy Father’s words evoked the history of the Jesuit mission Sainte-Marie among the Hurons. He recalled that the Martyrs’ Shrine was designated by one of his predecessors, Pope Urban VIII, in 1644 “as a place of pilgrimage, the first of its kind in North America”, and described it as a “symbol of the unity of faith in a diversity of cultures”.

Pope John Paul recalled the eight Jesuits who lived at the mission, saying, “these missionaries laid down their lives, they looked forward to a day when the native people would enjoy full maturity and exercise leadership in their Church. St. Jean de Brébeuf dreamed of a Church fully Catholic and fully Huron as well”. The Pope also evoked the memory of then-Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha, Joseph Chiwatenwa and his wife Aonneta, his brother Joseph “and other family members who lived and witnessed to their faith in an heroic manner”.

Speaking of the cultures of the indigenous peoples, Pope John Paul said, “During her long history, the Church herself has been constantly enriched by the new traditions which are added to her life and legacy. And today we are grateful for the part that the native peoples play, not only in the multicultural fabric of Canadian society, but in the life of the Catholic Church”. And he reminded his listeners that:

“Not only is Christianity relevant to the Indian people, but Christ, in the members of His Body, is Himself Indian.”

Listen to Pope John Paul’s discourse at the Canadian Martyrs’ Shrine in Huronia, Canada, 15 September 1984

I proclaim your dignity and support your destiny

The original itinerary of Pope John Paul’s apostolic journey to Canada in 1984 also included an event in Fort Simpson where he was scheduled to meet with members of the Assembly of First Nations, the Native Council of Canada, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada and the Métis National Council. This would have been the third event on that apostolic journey in which the Pope met with the indigenous peoples of Canada. Due to inclement weather, he landed instead in Yellowknife. From there, he broadcast the message he had prepared for the occasion, in which he defends the rights of indigenous peoples.

“To greet you”, the Pope said, “is to render respectful homage to the beginnings of human society in this vast region of North America. To greet you is to recall with reverence God’s plan and Providence as they have unfolded in your history and brought you to this day. To greet you in this portion of your land is to evoke the events of human living that have taken place on the scene of God’s original creation of majestic nature in these parts. At the same time, my coming among you looks back to your past in order to proclaim your dignity and support your destiny”.

He then cited a document issued in 1537, entitled Pastorale officium, in which his predecessor, Pope Paul III “proclaimed the rights of the native peoples of those times. He affirmed their dignity, defended their freedom, asserted that they could not be enslaved or deprived of their goods or ownership”. But he also addressed the reality that, “It is clear from the historical record that over the centuries your peoples have been repeatedly the victims of injustice by newcomers who, in their blindness, often saw all your culture as inferior”.

“The hour has come to bind up wounds, to heal all divisions. It is a time for forgiveness, for reconciliation, and for a commitment to building new relationships”.

“Today I want to proclaim that freedom which is required for a just and equitable measure of self-determination in your own lives as native peoples. In union with the whole Church, I proclaim all your rights - and their corresponding duties. And I also condemn physical, cultural and religious oppression, and all that would in any way deprive you or any group of what rightly belongs to you.”

Listen to excerpts from Pope John Paul II’s Radio and Television Message to the indigenous peoples of Canada, 18 September 1984

This is indeed a decisive time in your history

At the end of his apostolic journey to the United States in September 1987, Pope John Paul II visited Fort Simpson in Canada on 20 September. It was almost exactly three years later to the day when he should have visited there in 1984 on his apostolic journey to Canada. Between seven and eight thousand people representing the indigenous peoples across Canada were present for the event, which included a ceremony in which he blessed the river, and all the world’s water, fire, air, and wind.

In his discourse, Pope John Paul repeated many concepts presented during his television and radio broadcast of 18 September 1984. He again affirmed their “right to a just and equitable measure of self-government, along with a land base and adequate resources necessary for developing a viable economy for present and future generations”.

“Is that not the deepest hope of the Indian, Métis, and Inuit peoples of Canada? To be more.”

Wanting to be more, Pope John Paul explained, is not to be sought solely in “increased possession” which “is not the ultimate goal of nations or of individuals… A people that would act in this way would thereby lose the best of its patrimony; in order to live, it would be sacrificing its reasons for living”.

“What would become of the ‘life’ of the Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples”, the Pope continued, “if they cease to promote the values of the human spirit which have sustained them for generations? If they no longer see the earth and its benefits as given to them in trust by the Creator? If the bonds of family life are weakened, and instability undermines their societies? If they were to adopt an alien way of thinking, in which people are considered according to what they have and not according to what they are?

“The soul of the native peoples of Canada is hungry f or the Spirit of God, because it is hungry for justice, peace, love, goodness, fortitude, responsibility and human dignity (Cfr. John Paul II Redemptor Hominis, 18)."

“This is indeed a decisive time in your history. It is essential that you be spiritually strong and clear-sighted as you build the future of your tribes and nations. Be assured that the Church will walk that path with you.”

Listen to the words of Pope John Paul II to the indigenous peoples, Fort Simpson, Canada, 20 September 1987

Your way of life needs to be preserved and cherished

Following the blessing ceremony on the Fort Simpson Camp Ground, Pope John Paul II began the celebration of Holy Mass by speaking in one of the indigenous languages. Later, in his homily, the Pope praised the indigenous peoples’ “relationship of trust” with the Creator in which they see “the beauty and the richness of the land as coming from His bountiful hand and as deserving wise use and conservation”. He also praised other aspects of the cultures of the five nations present:

“As native peoples, you are faced with a supreme test: that of promoting the religious, cultural, and social values that will uphold your human dignity and ensure your future well-being. Your sense of sharing, your understanding of human community rooted in the family, the highly valued relationships between your elders and your young people, your spiritual view of creation which calls for responsible care and protection of the environment - all of these traditional aspects of your way of life need to be preserved and cherished.”

Listen to Pope John Paul’s homily given during Mass celebrated at Fort Simpson, Canada, 20 September 1987

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Pope John Paul II in Canada
24 July 2022, 12:00