EDMONTON — Beneath a large beer sign, an aging priest sat on a grey folding chair, taking confessions from people. Draped in a purple stole, his white robes brushing the asphalt floor of the stadium concourse, the priest would lean in, his forehead close to that of the confessor.
Outside, on the field where the Edmonton Elks play, the music was stirring as communion commenced for the tens of thousands who made the trip to Commonwealth Stadium to see Pope Francis give Mass for the Feast of St. Anne.
“It’s very special because the Pope represents the head of the Catholic church,” said Doreen Rabbit, seated under an alcove beside her brother, Wallace Manyfingers. “I never thought I’d see the Pope come to Canada.”
The two had travelled by bus from Cardston, in southern Alberta.
“It’s good to have the Pope in Indian country,” said Manyfingers.
The day began under mottled skies, which soon brightened. While some 65,000 tickets had been distributed for the mass, there were thousands of no-shows and empty seats. Still, there were many more thousands of people clustering under the baking sun. Upon entry, volunteers were handing out water bottles. People sat with shirts draped over their heads, a few brought umbrellas.
As Pope Francis rode in on the popemobile, doing a circuit of the stadium, his security dashed to the stands, hoisting babies over to the pontiff for a kiss and a pat on the head. The crowd roared in appreciation. They rushed from their seats up against the security fences, holding out smartphones to get photo and video as the head of the Catholic church went by. One man, chatting with friends, spoke of the “historical” moment of the Pope coming to Edmonton.
The trip, which has been dubbed Walking Together, has been referred to by Pope Francis as a “pilgrimage of penance.” On Monday, at Maskwa Park in Maskwacis, about an hour south of Edmonton, he apologized for the role Catholics had played in Canada’s residential schools system.
“I humbly beg forgiveness for all the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples,” Pope Francis said.
Contrition was not the theme on Tuesday, with no further apologies made — beyond calling for “a future in which the history of violence and marginalization of our Indigenous brothers and sisters is never repeated.” Rather, the sermon was about grandparents and respect for elders; Saint Anne, the saint of mothers and grandmothers, was Mary’s mother and Jesus’s grandmother.
“In the fog of forgetfulness that overshadows our turbulent times, it is essential to cultivate our roots, to pray for and with our forebears, to dedicate time to remember and guard their legacy. This is how a family tree grows; this is how the future is built,” Francis said.
Still, noted Manyfingers, with his Monday apology, Francis had fulfilled one of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s recommendations — that the Catholic church apologize for its role in the residential schools that stripped language and culture from generations of Indigenous children.
But he wished Francis had rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery, a papal policy from the 15th century that encouraged the colonization of the Americas.
“It’s a repressive doctrine. It’s hurting us now,” said Manyfingers.
The process of reconciliation has gripped Canada, especially over the past year since the announcement that unmarked graves had likely been discovered on the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School. Hundreds of other potential discoveries have since been made, initiating a period of national mourning.
“It’s a black stain on our Catholic faith,” said Michelle Khatib, who had travelled from Red Deer, Alta., to see the Pope give mass.
Alongside her, Monique Gatrix, of Agassiz, B.C., had tears in her eyes as she spoke of reconciliation, of forgiveness. “I think this Pope is a Pope of healing,” she said.
Among the crowd were people in orange Every Child Matters T-shirts. At communion, the wafer was delivered by volunteers under orange umbrellas.
For Catholics, the mass was a special moment. Some had T-shirts with the Pope’s face emblazoned upon them. Others were in their Sunday best. Many had picked up tour merchandise.
“He’s God’s representative on Earth, the blessing is very important,” said Rabbit.
While many of the gatherers were locals, others had travelled a distance to get a glimpse of the Pope. They brought snacks and sandwiches, a papal picnic, of sorts.
Sebastian Ang travelled from Vancouver. Before mass began, he waited in the comfortable shade. “I’m a Catholic, a Roman Catholic, so it’s important to attend the celebration of mass by the Pope,” said Ang.
As the mass wore on, delivered via a translator, many sought relief from the powerful July sunshine under shaded alcoves. Thousands remained in their seats, clasping hands while they prayed with their heads bowed or simply soaking in the glory of the moment.
To spend the day in the presence of the Pope, to reflect on reconciliation, will help “rejuvenate” the Catholics who experienced it, said Khatib.
“We are all part of a united family of Catholics and Christians around the world,” she said.