By Barry Ellsworth
TRENTON, Canada (AA) - Pope Francis will visit Canada to help heal divisions between the Catholic Church and the country's Indigenous communities, the Vatican announced Wednesday.
The date of the visit was not mentioned but the announcement follows an invitation issued earlier this year by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops to advance "the long-standing pastoral process of reconciliation with Indigenous peoples."
The Vatican said Francis "has indicated his willingness to visit the country on a date to be settled in due course."
Francis indicated earlier this year he would meet Indigenous leaders at the Vatican Dec. 17-20 but it is unclear, in light of the pope announcing he will come to Canada, if those meetings will still take place.
The three Indigenous groups - the Metis, Inuit and First Nations - have repeatedly asked the pope to come face-to-face and apologize for the Catholic Church's role in running Canada's historic Indian Residential Schools. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a Catholic, also called for the pope to officially apologize.
About 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and if they resisted, removed by force to attend the schools beginning in the mid-1820s. There were 139 schools spread across Canada, about 60% run by the Catholic Church.
It is estimated at least 4,000 died from rampant disease, often tuberculosis, and an untold number were subjected to mental, physical and sexual abuse. The dead were sometimes buried in graves at the schools without markers and Indigenous families were not notified of their children's deaths.
This past summer, more than 1,000 unmarked graves were uncovered at three schools using ground-penetrating radar technology and the search for more graves continues.
The Indigenous communities have spoken among themselves of the graves and with survivors of residential schools -- the last one closed in 1994 -- but a search of possible sites did not happen until this year.
The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches have officially apologized for running a number of the schools, as has the Canadian arm of the Catholic Church, but Indigenous leaders want the pope to issue the apology in person.
The government started the schools in a bid to stamp out Indigenous culture in the children and convert them to Christianity.
It apologized in 2008. Financial compensation for the atrocity to families and survivors is ongoing between the Indigenous bands and the government.