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Pope Francis greets the journalists onboard the papal plane on the occasion of his six-day pastoral visit to Canada on July 24, 2022.VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

A bit more than an hour into his flight to Canada, Pope Francis made a rather heroic effort to meet the members of the media who were stuffed in the rear of the plane.

Wearing his trademark simple white cassock and silver crucifix, Francis was all smiles when his staff parted the curtains that separated the reporters’ cabin from the rest of the Airbus A330 jet. If he was in pain, he hid it well – he suffers from damaged knee ligaments and other ailments, forcing him to be trundled to and from various events in a wheelchair. He steadied himself with an aluminum cane equipped with a wide rubber foot.

Francis began his greeting, delivered in Italian, with a condensed version of the Angelus address he would have given on Sunday at St. Peter’s Square if he had not been in the air; it was about the joy and love of grandparents.

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There was almost no talk of Canada – he obviously did not want to generate headlines before he reached Edmonton, the first stop on his six-day Canadian tour for reconciliation with Indigenous peoples. But he did say that his mission could be described as a “penitential pilgrimage – we are doing it with this spirit.”

When he finished his short speech, he hesitated for a moment and looked at his handlers, who were evidently there to catch him if he stumbled. “I would love to say hello, as always,” he told them. “I think I can make it.”

Not wearing a mask, he ever so slowly navigated his way along the two narrow aircraft aisles, steadying himself with one hand on the seat tops, the other on the cane. He shook the hand of every reporter, TV producer, cameraman and camerawomen – almost 80 in total – beaming the entire time, often engaging in pleasantries for a minute or more with reporters he knew.

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Then he shuffled back to the comfort and safety of the forward cabin, where two medical staff members were seated. His entourage of about 35 people included two high-ranking Canadian cardinals, Michael Czerny and Marc Ouellet, and a variety of top Vatican officials, among them Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state. Collectively, those officials are known as the seguito – the following – the Italian term for his inner circle

During every moment of his mini-tour, the Pope’s handlers had watched him with some apprehension, no doubt worried he might hurt or tire himself out. They knew the 85-year-old pontiff would need to muster all his energy for the Canadian visit, which will be gruelling by Papal tour standards. It involves two transatlantic flights and two long domestic flights, the first from Edmonton to Quebec City, the second from Quebec City to Iqaluit.

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Pope Francis greets the journalists onboard the papal plane on the occasion of his six-day pastoral visit to Canada on July 24, 2022.VINCENZO PINTO/AFP/Getty Images

Only a couple of weeks ago, there were rumours Francis would be a no-show in Canada. Even a few Vatican employees who saw him regularly had private doubts he would be able to step onto the airplane. He had recently canceled two trips, one to Lebanon, the other to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Last year, he underwent surgery to remove part of his colon, an operation that kept him in hospital for 10 days. This year, he missed Ash Wednesday celebrations. He has conducted mass while seated. The once-prolific traveler’s last overseas trip was a quick hop in early April to nearby Malta.

The rumours said the clearly ailing Pope had cancer and would call it quits, as his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, had done – the first pope not “to die on the cross,” as popes are expected to do, in nearly 700 years. Francis used a recent Reuters interview to deny he was gravely ill or would soon join Benedict in a pontiffs’ old-age home.

The Pope no doubt summoned all his remaining energy to make the trip to Canada, an indication of how seriously he takes not only his role as pastor to Indigenous Catholics in Canada, but also the importance of making an apology for the church’s role in abuses at residential schools on Canadian soil.

He apologized to Indigenous groups from Canada – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – in Rome in April and vowed to expand that apology in Canada, even if it meant doing so from a wheelchair (the Canadian bishops organizing the tour said in a press release that “Pope Francis is expected to use a wheelchair throughout his visit to Canada and limit his public appearances to no more than 60-90 minutes”).

The Canadian visit builds on Francis’s fairly late realization that Christian residential schools abuses were rampant in this country for a century. (The last schools closed in the 1990s.) It was an era when some 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families so they could attend the schools, where they were deprived of their culture, language and religion, stripping them of their identity.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went to the Vatican in 2017 to ask Francis to apologize; he didn’t. Two years later, the Vatican hosted a conference on the Amazon that pushed to the forefront the injustices suffered by native peoples in that part of the world during the colonial era. That conference was seen as strong evidence that Francis was starting to take Indigenous abuses seriously, meaning that what happened in Canada would have to be addressed with contrition.

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Francis kisses the hand of residential school survivor Elder Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as Chief Greg Desjarlais, left, looks on.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

Since then, ground-penetrating radar has found evidence of unmarked gravesites near several residential schools. Francis’s formal apology, in Rome, came the following year. The Canadian visit will build on the apology, making it an important step toward reconciliation.

Francis has expressed his strong desire to visit Ukraine and Moscow while he is still somewhat mobile, though neither trip has been scheduled – the Moscow one seems highly unlikely. With his health failing, the Canada visit could be one of his last long, ambitious journeys. It was a long time coming and will test his remaining energy, as well as the Church’s sincerity.

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