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During his visits to Canada, John Paul II praised the “moral and spiritual values” of Aboriginal peoples

John Paul II


I.Media - published on 07/17/22

As the Church prepares for Pope Francis's upcoming journey to Canada, i.Media helps readers to look back at Pope John Paul II's work toward healing and reconciliation.

During his visits to Canada, Pope John Paul II emphasized the “acute sense of the presence of God” that Aboriginal peoples carry. A few days before the beginning of Pope Francis’s apostolic journey to Canada, I.MEDIA looks back at the Polish pope’s visits to Canada. John Paul II was the only pope in office to have visited the vast North American country, marked by the contradictory currents of a traditional popular piety and rapid secularization.

1984: A tour through the Canadian immensities

John Paul II’s first tour of this vast country, from September 9 to 20, 1984, was particularly dense, with no less than 49 events, including speeches to various gatherings and radio broadcasts. The Canadian Bishops’ Conference recalls on its website that John Paul II embarked on a “marathon” of over 9,000 miles covering the enormous distances separating the different cities of the country.

The globe-trotting pope, who was making his 24th apostolic journey outside of Italy, went successively to Quebec (Quebec City, Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, Trois-Rivières, Montreal), Newfoundland (Flatrock, Saint John), New Brunswick (Moncton), Nova Scotia (Halifax) Ontario (Toronto, Huronia), Manitoba (Winnipeg), Alberta (Edmonton) and British Columbia (Vancouver), before returning to Quebec for a Mass in Hull and to Ontario for a series of concluding meetings in the federal capital, Ottawa.

John Paul II’s stay in Quebec was marked on September 10, 1984, by his meeting with delegations of indigenous peoples at the sanctuary of Sainte-Anne de Beaupré, which Pope Francis will also visit on July 28. In a wide-ranging speech, the Polish Pope paid a heartfelt tribute to the transmission of the faith by the First Nation communities themselves, “those valiant missionaries and those valiant Christians who carry within them the blood and culture of the first inhabitants of this country.”

Very attached to popular piety, John Paul II also paid tribute to the “moral and spiritual values” of the indigenous communities: “the strong sense of God’s presence, love of your family, respect for the elderly, solidarity with your people, sharing, hospitality, respect for nature, the importance given to silence and prayer, faith in Providence.” “Guard this wisdom carefully,” urged the Polish pope, inviting them to “eliminate every form of enslavement that could compromise your future.”

The first Slavic pope, in a time still marked by the Cold War, also took advantage of his stay to greet Polish and Slovak emigrants in Toronto. Other notable moments during this long trip included the blessing of fishing boats in Flatrock, a small town at the eastern end of Newfoundland, and a gathering of 60,000 young people on September 11, 1984 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal.

Among the young people involved in the musical performances during the gathering was the youngest daughter of a group of 14 children from Charlemagne, a small town in the Montreal area. This 16 year old girl, a certain Céline Dion, made a lasting impression with her powerful voice, and – just a few years later – she became a world famous celebrity.

1987: A gathering specifically dedicated to Aboriginal people

The 1984 gathering at Fort Simpson, in the Northwest Territories, was cancelled due to weather concerns, but the Pope kept his promise to return three years later, culminating a tour of the United States. On September 20, 1987, John Paul II met with Aboriginal peoples in this remote northern Canadian village, chosen for its central location to bring together the faithful from “far away – from the frozen Arctic, from the prairies, from the forests, from all parts of this vast and beautiful country of Canada,” said John Paul II.

The Pope reminded them of the Church’s centuries-old commitment to their rights. “Allow me to recall that at the dawn of the Church’s presence in the New World, my predecessor, Pope Paul III, proclaimed in 1537 the rights of the indigenous peoples of the time. He affirmed their dignity, defended their freedom, and stated that they could not be enslaved or deprived of their goods or property. This has always been the position of the Church,” the Polish pope said. “My presence among you today marks a reaffirmation of this teaching,” he said.

John Paul II during WYD Toronto 2002 – fr
Pope John Paul II waves to the crowd during the Papal welcoming ceremony in Toronto, Canada, 25 July 2002.

2002: WYD Toronto, a gathering marked by the shock of September 11

The third – and last to date – trip of a pope to Canada was that of John Paul II 20 years ago on the occasion of the WYD in Toronto, organized from July 23 to 28, 2002, which brought together 800,000 young people from around the world. Although very weak, the Polish pope put all his energy into participating in his last World Youth Day, and he surprised observers by taking the effort to walk slowly down the stairs when he got off the plane, instead of using the elevator provided to spare him this effort that he had not been able to make during his previous trip to Bulgaria.

“This great pilgrimage of youth,” which he strongly desired to return to North America nine years after the WYD in Denver, “is stopping here, on the shores of Lake Ontario, which reminds us of another lake, that of Tiberias, on whose shores the Lord Jesus addressed an attractive proposal to the first disciples, some of whom were probably young like you,” said John Paul II in his first speech to young people.

John Paul II spoke specifically to Canadians at this international event, but he referred to the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, which border the Toronto area. “The new millennium began with two contradictory events: the crowd of pilgrims who came to Rome during the Great Jubilee to cross the Holy Door, which is Christ, the Savior and Redeemer of man; and the terrible terrorist attack in New York, an icon of a world in which the dialectic of enmity and hatred seems to prevail,” said John Paul II.

Before leaving his residence, the Polish Pope greeted a group of young indigenous people from the region of Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha. “You rightly call her kaiatano (very noble and worthy person): may she be a model for you, showing you how Christians can be salt and light of the earth,” John Paul II said in his last speech on Canadian soil.

Pope Francis will be the first Bishop of Rome to visit Canada since John Paul II, but he visited Canada before his election. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was a speakers at the International Eucharistic Congress in Quebec City in 2008, at the invitation of Cardinal Marc Ouellet, then Archbishop of Quebec City.

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