I remember the day a girl about my height with jet black hair bounded up my driveway asking to play. I was about five years old and shy. Lori was a high energy, outgoing six-year-old and we quickly became friends. For the next three years we had adventures, playing hide and seek and other childhood pastimes, sometimes getting into mischief together.
In upper elementary, I remember finding out that the reason Lori acted differently is because she had fetal alcohol syndrome. But as young children that difference never factored in, in fact, in my eyes she was exciting and fun to be around.
Knowing Lori was a gift I received early in my life. I’ve carried the memories we made together with me ever since. And I carried her in my heart as I made the pilgrimage from my home in Calgary to Edmonton for the Papal Mass on July 26, 2022.
I prayed for Lori, one of my first best friends, an Indigenous girl who was innocently sentenced to a life clouded by the effects of a preventable syndrome. Lori was adopted and while she never attended residential school, it’s likely someone from her family tree had spent time at one of these schools. To me, her situation is an example from my own lived experience of the repercussions of residential schools felt through the generations.
When we arrived at Commonwealth Stadium, the first thing we did was take a family photo to remember our family pilgrimage as we will continue to unpack its significance in the years to come.
Next we found our seats, and while waiting for the Papal Mass to begin I noticed four middle-aged women sitting behind me wearing Every Child Matters orange and black t-shirts. Among them was Kelly Spooner who was not herself Indigenous, but came to honour the memory of her uncle (through marriage) who died in 2019 and attended residential school for six years.
“I came for strength and to renew my spirit. It’s a part of history today,” said Kelly Spooner.
Not long after, the Pope rode around the stadium greeting the crowd. Kelly ran down to the front gate to get a closer look. After he passed by she came back in tears, saying “I’m so happy he’s here.”
As the pre-Mass program was wrapping up, emcee Janelle Reinhardt asked the crowd to keep a prayerful silence.
“The stadium truly became silent, it was powerful and profound, you could only hear the humming of the buildings. It was impressive in a crowd so large,” said Amber Franco, reflecting on this poignant moment. She drove from Calgary to Edmonton with her husband Mike and seven children.
Calgary Bishop William McGrattan also took note of the prayerful atmosphere as he looked up into the crowd from ground level.
“When we entered in the procession for Mass and I saw the number of people on the field and in the stands you had this sense of the presence of Christ in those who had gathered to be with the Holy Father,” said Bishop McGrattan.
The Papal Mass was celebrated on the feast of St. Joachim and St. Anne – the grandparents of Jesus. Pope Francis used this opportunity to speak about the importance of grandparents and family cohesion during his homily.
“This message was simple, but one that everyone could receive and appreciate,” said Bishop McGrattan. “The message of a pastor who himself was advanced in age and not afraid to show the signs of declining mobility, and the need for assistance, which is experienced in every family.”
Like any good pilgrimage, there are challenging moments and as we sat in the bleachers listening to Pope Francis our children began to get a bit restless in the blistering heat. I turned my own discomfort into a small offering toward reconciliation, all the while my heart growing in gratitude for the heroic effort of our 85-year-old pontiff.
I thought this was a generous gesture toward reconciliation simply by showing up and “taking the heat” with us in every sense of the phrase. But I was also humbled by the elders some 80 years and up who had made the pilgrimage from various parts of the country also suffering their own discomforts in an attempt to heal and move forward.
My own father Deacon Richard Loftson accompanied a group of Indigenous pilgrims from Manitoba on behalf of the Archdiocese of St. Boniface. He ministers to the St. Kateri Tekakwitha Indigenous Parish in Winnipeg.
“They were thankful for the apology. They were emotional, in tears many of them. They had been waiting for so long,” said Deacon Loftson.
Bishop McGrattan also sought feedback as he encountered people affected by residential schools.
“In talking to some survivors at the various events, it was difficult for some to hear and relive these memories. For others, there was a sense of recognition that they were listened to by Pope Francis and that his words and actions were genuine in their eyes,” said Bishop McGrattan.
Like many things, the future lies with the children in hopes they will learn from history and build a more just and merciful society where no child will ever again suffer the consequences of being forced to leave their family and lose their culture and heritage.
This is why our friends Alissa and Konrad Paley of Calgary also made the pilgrimage with their three young daughters (six years and under) to the Papal Mass with the same intention as our family: to build a culture of goodwill and reconciliation in their home.
“Participating in this particular Papal Mass was really important as a Catholic and a Canadian,” said Alissa Paley. “The Church is made up of the people, we are the people of the Church. In order for the Church to work towards reconciliation we must show up.”
“I was honoured to bring my daughters with me. I know that they currently don’t understand the gravity of this event, but I hope as they grow up they may continue to pray for the journey toward reconciliation in this country.”
My thoughts have turned toward the child during this pilgrimage. Just like my friend Lori who did nothing to deserve the circumstances she inherited as a child, neither did I deserve the family and opportunities I have been afforded. Everything is a gift. In gratitude, I left Edmonton pondering how I can use the time I have left to seek holiness by laying down my life for my friends.
== More photos from our Diocesan families during the Papal Mass (click "all comments")
Catholic Pastoral Centre Staff and Guest Writers