Pope Francis in Canada: When the gesture is the message

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The closeness of Pope Francis, especially in his encounters with indigenous peoples, was the mark of his apostolic journey to Canada, filled with actions to underline the penitential and reconciling dimension that the pope wanted to give to the visit to Canadian soil. .

By Alessandro Gisotti

“An effective healing process requires concrete actions.” Pope Francis had underlined this in the conclusion of his address to the delegations of the indigenous peoples of Canada, received at the Vatican, in the spring.

The visit to Canadian soil, which the Pope made with joy despite his difficulties in walking, was marked precisely by these “concrete actions” which are gestures. These actions preceded and accompanied the words spoken by the Pope in the North American country and, in particular, his calls for justice and forgiveness form the premise of an authentic journey of reconciliation.

In some ways, the visit itself can be seen as concrete action “of enormous impact”, to quote Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Canadian newspapers have published large photos on their front pages these days to capture such important gestures.

After all, just minutes after arriving in Edmonton, on the first leg of his visit, the Pope had already made a gesture as simple as it was effective in giving substance to the definition of “penitential pilgrimage” that he had indicated for this Apostolic Journey: kissing the hand of an old indigenous lady during the welcoming ceremony at the airport.

Every papal journey can (also) be told in pictures. This is perhaps even truer this time around, so strong was the symbolic value of the events and meetings beginning with the one on Monday in Maskwacis, which fitted in well with the concluding event in Iqaluit, with young people and the elders of the Inuit people.

The Pope, in his wheelchair, praying in silence in the community cemetery of Ermineskin. The Pope kissing the red banner printed with the names of the children who died in residential schools and then standing, without the aid of his cane, before the native chief “Golden Eagle” who placed a headdress on his head as a sign of respect and the recognition of authority.

There was also the gesture of returning the red moccasins, a symbol of the pain of so many indigenous children, which had been given to him at the Vatican four months ago. Particularly evocative was the image of Pope Francis absorbed in meditation on the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, a place that unites indigenous peoples and faithful Catholics in devotion. It offered a gospel-flavored snapshot to bring us back to the sources of faith and which, as he would later point out in his homily, makes us imagine another lake, thousands of miles away, that of Galilee, inextricably linked to life and to the preaching of Jesus.

Even an “ordinary” gesture like the blessing of a sacred image in this context takes on an “extraordinary” value.

When the Pope in the Church of the Sacred Heart of First Peoples blessed the statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first native North American woman to be proclaimed a saint, he was actually telling us that the leaven of the gospel can— in fact, must make the peoples it encounters grow and enrich them without nullifying their identity and their cultural and spiritual heritage, because the faith is proclaimed and not imposed.

Then there was a gesture which did not hit the headlines but which testifies not only to the deep meaning of this journey but to one of the guiding principles of the Petrine ministry: the “revolution of tenderness”.

Thursday, at the end of the mass at the Sainte-Anne de Beaupré Sanctuary, a mother brought her baby, suffering from a serious congenital malformation, to the Pope for his blessing. It was a very tender moment with the pope who not only blessed the baby but also held him in his arms next to the mother. Also in this circumstance, as in so many others during the trip, the wheelchair did not interfere with her proximity to people. On the contrary, his own condition of fragility has made – if possible – the Pope even closer to those who suffer.

Pope Francis never retreated from the pain of the people he met.

To listen, to listen with the heart – he showed us this many times – we must be close to our neighbour. This attitude was very visible during Friday’s meeting with former students of the Iqaluit boarding school, “at the end of the world”. Pope Francis sat among them in a row of chairs in the shape of a circle, thus placing himself “as an equal”.

Arrived at only three hundred kilometers from the arctic circle, he thus concretely reaffirmed by this gesture that the shepherd must have the smell of the sheep, especially the furthest away and the most wounded.

Her journey has therefore seen the harmonious intermingling of gestures and words, speeches and concrete actions, like the threads of the colored bands of indigenous dresses.

To paraphrase the famous mass media researcher Marshall McLuhan (Canadian and Catholic), the gesture became the message. A message of love and reconciliation.


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