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Pope Francis oversaw a Mass in Edmonton, Canada, on Tuesday as part of his apostolic journey.
The pope was dressed in vestments made by an indigenous artist and carried a handcrafted crozier for the Mass, where he delivered a homily reflecting on the historically tumultuous relationship between the institutional Catholic Church and Canadian indigenous communities.
Celebrating a pontifical Mass, Francis was called to deliver the homily – a reflection on Scripture read at the Mass – in which he spoke about the elderly, the Christian faith’s transfer through generations, and the importance of remembering the sacrifices of one’s forefathers.
“Those who have preceded us have passed on to us a passion, a strength and a yearning, a flame that is up to us to reignite,” Pope Francis said. “It is not a matter of preserving ashes but of rekindling the fire that they lit.”
“The grandparents who went before, the elderly who had dreams and hopes for us, and made great sacrifices for us, ask us an essential question – what kind of a society do you want to build?” the pope asked the audience.
Pope Francis celebrated the Mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium to an audience of approximately 50,000 participants. The Mass is the centerpiece of Catholic theology. It is a sacrament in which faithful gather to receive the Eucharist – which Catholics believe to be the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ.
The Mass was notably forward-thinking in the context of the pope’s trip, which has been referred to as a pilgrimage of apology – the bishop of Rome apologized Monday for the mistreatment and abuse of native children during the period of Christianization in Canada.
“Although Christian charity was not absent, and there were many outstanding instances of devotion and care for children, the overall effects of the policies linked to the residential schools were catastrophic,” the pope said in a formal apology to indigenous communities on Monday.
More than 150,000 indigenous children were separated from their families and brought to residential schools between 1881 and 1996. The schools were overseen by both missionaries and the Canadian government. A number of children were allegedly starved, beaten and sexually abused.
The pope stopped short of condemning historic Catholic missionaries in Canada, saying instead that while many Catholics had noble intentions and helped the people they were meant to serve, “our Christian faith tells us that this was a disastrous error, incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
While large swaths of the modern indigenous community are Catholic, the church remains controversial in secular discussions.
The pope’s Mass aimed to bring those people harmed in the past or who felt ignored by the church back into the larger Catholic community.
Catholicism remains a common religion among indigenous people.
Canadian leaders have been aware of the many children dying at the schools since 1907, but the incidents garnered more attention following last year’s discoveries of what appeared to be unmarked graves at or near former residential schools.
Thousands of tickets for the Mass were reserved for indigenous survivors of the residential schools. Indigenous leaders in Treaty 6, the location Francis is visiting in Alberta, have said they were overwhelmed with requests from survivors who wished to attend the event.