WARNING: This story contains distressing details.
At an open air mass Tuesday for tens of thousands of congregants, Pope Francis highlighted the importance of parents and grandparents and challenged listeners to honour them by making choices to build a better future.
"Those who have preceded us have passed on to us a passion, a strength, and a yearning. A flame that is up to us to reignite," Francis said during his homily at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton.
"It is not a matter of preserving ashes but of rekindling the fire that they lit."
July 26 is the Feast of St. Anne and St. Joachim, the grandmother and grandfather of Jesus. It's a day organizers say is a one of particular reverence for Indigenous Catholics.
In his homily, the Pope repeatedly referred to the "treasure" of elders and how they helped shape who followers are, helping them to grow in love and faith.
"They bestowed on us something that can never be taken from us and that at the same time allows us to be unique, original and free," he said.
Though there were no further expressions of apology or regret for the Catholic Church's role in Canada's residential school system, the Pope did make several references to that piece of what he has called his "pilgrimage of penance."
It is "our spiritual duty to honour our grandparents and elders, to treasure their presence among us in order to create a better future," Francis said.
"A future in which the history of violence and marginalization of our indigenous brothers and sisters is never repeated."
Before the formal mass got underway, the Pope arrived to cheers and the sounds of Indigenous drummers and singers at Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium Tuesday, where more than 65,000 people had been expected to attend. Later Tuesday, organizers said the crowd numbered about 40,000.
The Pope waved to the crowd as he was driven slowly around the track in the Popemobile, which stopped several times to allow the pontiff to bless babies who were handed to him.
The mass began with a procession of clergy to the stage, symbolic of the papal visit's theme of Walking Together. Organizers said 460 priests and 56 deacons distributed holy communion at stations set up throughout the stadium.
At the conclusion of the mass, Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith thanked Francis for the "enormous personal effort you have made to be with us," sparking a sustained standing ovation from those in attendance — and smiles from the pontiff.
Later in the day Francis is expected to take part in an annual pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne, northwest of Edmonton.
The annual Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage has been held for more than a century — though it was paused due to COVID-19 — and has long held significance for Indigenous Christians. The Pope is expected to spend about an hour at the site on the first day of the four-day pilgrimage.
Francis's participation in the proceedings at Lac Ste. Anne is expected to begin around 5 p.m. MT.
Francis began his week-long visit to Canada with a public address in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday, where he asked for forgiveness for the role of Christians in residential schools.
Francis travelled to the lands of four Cree nations to pray at a cemetery. Four chiefs then escorted the pontiff in his wheelchair to powwow ceremonial grounds where he delivered a long-sought apology and was given a feathered headdress.
Francis said the forced assimilation of Indigenous peoples into Christian society destroyed their cultures, severed their families and marginalized generations in ways still being felt today.
"I am deeply sorry," Francis said, to applause from school survivors and Indigenous community members gathered at the former residential school south of Edmonton.
The Pope said his apology is only the first step in making amends with Indigenous people in Canada and that a serious investigation must be done into the facts of what occurred in the past.
"I humbly beg forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples," Francis said near the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School.
His words went beyond his earlier apology for the "deplorable" acts of missionaries and instead took responsibility for many members of the church who co-operated with the "catastrophic" assimilation policy, which Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to a "cultural genocide."
More than 150,000 Indigenous children in Canada were forced to attend state-funded Christian schools from the 19th century until the 1970s in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes and culture.
On Wednesday, Francis will depart Alberta for Quebec City before travelling to Iqaluit.
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools or by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.
Mental health counselling and crisis support is also available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through the Hope for Wellness hotline at 1-855-242-3310 or by online chat at www.hopeforwellness.ca.