On the feast day of Saint Anne, mother of the Virgin Mary and grandmother of Jesus, Pope Francis visited a place dedicated to her that is particularly dear to the Indigenous communities of Canada: Lac Ste Anne (Lake Saint Anne), in the province of Alberta.
Among the pilgrims, the Pope found joy and excitement. But there was also the poignant silence as he meditated alone in front of a lake considered sacred by the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
After celebrating a morning Mass with about 50,000 faithful in Edmonton’s stadium, the Pope travelled to the lake known for the annual pilgrimage that has attracted some 40,000 people each year since 1889.
In this place – heavily secured for the occasion – a crowd of 10,000 had flocked, including both Indigenous and non-Indigenous families. They shared in a good mood on the grounds where tepees were set up.
As a first gesture, the Pope stopped by the statue of Saint Anne at the entrance, which pilgrims are accustomed to touch upon arrival. Then, despite the planned program, the 85-year-old pontiff did not get into the open popemobile that was waiting for him. Preferring a humble and uncluttered image, he remained in his wheelchair, pushed by an attendant.
The cardinal directions
Accompanied by native chiefs in full regalia and feathered headdresses, he followed a winding path through fields to the shore. There, the head of the Catholic Church followed an Indigenous tradition: he blessed the waters of the lake, turning to the east, south, west, and north, as is the Indigenous movement of prayer, oriented to the four cardinal directions according to the movement of the sun.
The day before, during a meeting in the Church of the Sacred Heart of the First Peoples, the national parish of Canadian Indigenous peoples, the Pope meditated on the “cosmic” meaning given to the cardinal directions: These, he said, “are understood not only as geographical reference points but also as dimensions that embrace the whole of reality and indicate the way to heal it.”
The Pope added, Jesus, “with the extremities of his cross, embraces the cardinal directions and unites the most distant peoples, Jesus heals and pacifies everything.”
Still in his wheelchair, the Pope then went down to the edge of the river, where he remained alone, recollected, while the crowd scattered on the ground observed a striking silence. A silence that gave a mystical dimension to this moment in front of the “Lake of God” – as it is called by local tradition.
On the way back, the Pontiff blessed the crowd with water from the lake, sprinkling it all along the way. In his homily, he emphasized that it was near a lake in Galilee that the Son of God chose to reveal his “revolutionary” message of loving even one’s enemies.