Pope’s visit to Canada: an indigenous priest in charge of the liturgy

When Vatican officials were looking for someone in Canada to act as a liaison for program planning during the pope’s visit later this month, they had specific criteria.

Ideally, the person would have Aboriginal heritage, have a connection to the residential school system, and speak Italian.

This left them with only one name: Cristino Bouvette.

The 36-year-old Roman Catholic priest from Calgary is Italian by mother and Cree and Métis by his father. Her kokum, or grandmother, was a residential school survivor.

“I have these two worlds coming together,” Bouvette said in an interview in Edmonton.

“This new role is something that I think is a perfect fit for me. If in God’s providence He has set things up for me to be a part of it this way, I’m honored to do so. »

Bouvette has been named National Liturgical Director for Pope Francis’ first visit to Canada. The theme of the trip is “Walking Together,” and from July 24-29, the pope is scheduled to meet with Indigenous groups and residential school survivors at stops in Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit.

The position requires Bouvette to work with local organizers and the Vatican liturgy office to ensure that all ceremonies taking place during the visit reflect the land in which they reside and the Catholic Church.

Bouvette was approached earlier this year when conversations began about Pope Francis’ visit to Canada.

“I knew right away that I didn’t want to do it,” he recalls. “It’s very overwhelming. I was sure it was going to be really complicated. I was just afraid of doing something wrong or being wrong. »

Being an indigenous priest comes with a level of pressure, he said. It’s a role he accepts with joy but one that fills him with fear when he thinks of fostering healing and reconciliation between his own people and the church that has inflicted pain on him.

An estimated 150,000 Aboriginal children were forced to attend residential schools for a century, and the Roman Catholic Church ran about 60% of the schools.

“When I feel like a lot of people are relying on me to say or do exactly the right thing at the right time, that’s the biggest burden. »

Thoughts of his kokum came to his mind, he said.

When Amelia Mae Bouvette was seven years old, she was forced to leave her family in Saddle Lake Cree Nation in east-central Alberta to attend residential school in Edmonton, which was run by the United Church. .

Despite this, she maintained a deep connection to her Christian faith. She grew up as a member of the United Church and her family members were ordained ministers.

Decades later, when it came time for Cristino Bouvette to tell his grandmother that he had decided to become a priest, she told him that she had met good religious and priests in her life and hoped that he would be one of them.

She died in 2019, a month before her 100th birthday.

When Bouvette thinks about what his kokum would say about his role in the Pope’s Canadian visit, those aren’t the words that come to mind.

“I can see the expression on her face and feel her hand in mine,” he said. “She would be a refuge for me to know that no matter what happened and no matter what I did or how I did it, she would support me. So that brings a lot of comfort. »

The pope is expected to develop an apology for the church’s role in residential schools, which he presented to indigenous delegates earlier this year at the Vatican.

The past few months have been a whirlwind of encounters, said Bouvette.

He has been in touch with indigenous representatives from each region the pontiff is due to visit to hear what they hope to see from the program. Vatican officials also toured the planned sites.

“It’s just surreal to be able, in Italian, to explain to some monsignors what the stain is or why praying in the four directions has meaning,” he said. “All of these things blend into one. »

Details of what the ceremonies will look like are under wraps, but Bouvette said it was important to develop a program that Pope Francis can participate in in a meaningful way while respecting indigenous traditions and customs.

“I hope people who are looking for something from this get what they need and that if there are people who didn’t think they needed it or aren’t actively doing it, that doesn’t hurt them. will not at least cause any disturbance or damage. »

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 9, 2022.

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