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Nicole Winfield and Rob Gillies
Associated Press

ROME — The Vatican on Thursday released the itinerary for Pope Francis’ July 24-30 visit to Canada, providing a sign he intends to go ahead with the trip despite knee problems that forced him to cancel a six-day visit to Africa also planned for next month.

Francis is due to visit Canada to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses they suffered at Catholic-run residential schools.

The scaled-back itinerary includes several encounters with Indigenous groups, as well as a visit to Maskwacis, home to the former Ermineskin Residential School, one of the largest residential school sites in Canada. Alberta, where Francis lands first, is home to the largest number of former residential schools in Canada.

Francis will also have a private meeting with survivors of the schools in remote Iqualuit, where he is due to visit for a few hours on his way back to Rome on July 29.

Pope Francis celebrates Easter Mass at St. Peter's Basilica at The Vatican Sunday, April 4, 2021, during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Filippo Monteforte/Pool photo via AP)

Francis, 85, has been using a wheelchair for over a month because of strained ligaments in his right knee that have made standing and walking difficult. The Canadian bishops conference said Francis’ appearance at individual public events would be limited to one hour, “due to his advanced age and limitations.”

The publication of the itinerary was delayed for nearly two weeks, leading to speculation Francis might be forced to cancel traveling to Canada as he did his before a planned July 2-7 pilgrimage to Africa.

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And the itinerary doesn’t mean the trip is 100 percent confirmed, since there is now precedent for the Vatican pulling the plug after one was released.

The Vatican published the schedule for Francis’ planned trip to Congo and South Sudan on May 28. It announced on June 10 that the pope's visit would have to be postponed until an undetermined later date because of doctors’ concerns the trip might jeopardize the therapy he is undergoing.

The Vatican has released no details about the type of therapy he is receiving beyond knee injections. The Canada itinerary is light for a typical papal trip, for the most part featuring only one major event each morning and one each afternoon to allow for maximum rest time.

Francis met with Indigenous groups earlier this year at the Vatican and offered a historic apology for the abuses they endured.

Assembly of First Nations member Rosanne Casimiro Ttes talks to journalists outside St. Peter's Square at the end of a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican, Thursday, March 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Members of the Assembly of First Nations perform in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican, Thursday, March 31, 2022. Pope Francis has welcomed First Nations delegations to the Vatican. They are seeking an apology for the Catholic Church's role in running Canada's notorious residential schools for Indigenous children. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil. Francis said at the time of his Vatican meetings that he hoped to make the apology in person this summer.

Phil Fontaine, a former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations who was part of delegation that met with Francis at the Vatican, called Thursday's update “wonderful news.”

“He made a commitment to us at the Vatican, and he’s following through with that commitment,” Fontaine said.

“People were anxious that his health issues would force the cancellation of the Canadian papal tour, but clearly he sees it as important. It is a testament to his sincerity,” he added.

Fontaine, 77, said he and his classmates suffered physical and sexual abuse when he was a boy at the Fort Alexander Indian Residential School in Manitoba

More than 150,000 native 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 their homes and culture. The aim was to Christianize and assimilate them into mainstream society, which previous Canadian governments considered superior.

The Canadian government has admitted that physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, and that students were beaten for speaking their native languages. Indigenous leaders say the legacy of abuse and family separation as a root cause of the epidemic rates of alcohol and drug addiction on Canadian reservations.

“We know that the Holy Father was deeply moved by his encounter with Indigenous Peoples in Rome earlier this year, and that he hopes to build on the important dialogue that took place," the coordinator of the Canada visit, Archbishop Richard Smith, said in a statement.

The president of the Canadian Catholic bishops' conference, Bishop Raymond Poisson, thanked organizers and offered prayers for the pope.

"We pray for the health of Pope Francis and also that his pastoral visit to Canada will bring reconciliation and hope to all those who will accompany our shepherd on this historic journey,” Poisson said in a statement.

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