The Papal Visit: Why It Is Historic

By S. Callikan

The moral condemnation of the UK and its backers in the name of humanity and international institutions which countries have pledged to respect… these are strong words indeed from a respected international personality in spheres more accustomed to the niceties of diplo-speak

Receiving both the temporal Head of Vatican State and the eminent head of the Catholic Church, was another rare blessing for our small island and a gratification, when our local mores and publicly-aired problems were set aside for the auspicious eight-hour event and during the days of earnest preparations between the Evêché and the PMO. The previous papal visit of Jean-Paul II lasted three event-filled days from 14th-16th October 1989 including a mass gathering in Rodrigues, other ceremonies in the Réduit and Sainte-Croix and an assembly of youngsters in Rose-Hill stadium. No doubt the papal words and sermons over such an extended trip had their importance for those relatively stressful times though we cannot gauge what were the lasting effects, nor should we be speculating whether those of today, over a couple of events, will touch deeper strands of our society.

While mainstream media have understandably focused on the visit, the associated protocol, the “homélie” at Marie Reine de la Paix and the touching visit and messaging at the Père Laval caveau, we can with hindsight spare some thoughts for the wider context. The papal visit to Mozambique and Madagascar had clearly a focus for matters of particular relevance to the African continent with two among the poorest world countries, both hit recently by natural calamities and struggling for burgeoning normalcy in democratic functions and social reconciliation after years if not decades of fratricidal warring factions. And we may add, both afflicted by the following twin scourges: the first, that of youth despondency at lack of jobs and perspectives without connections or political backing, and the second, reported widespread corruption and family, kith and kin nepotism in higher administrative-political spheres of government.

Given that background, the MSM politburo must have exercised its powers of persuasion with both local diocesan authorities and Vatican City to add the Mauritius hop-over despite a somewhat discordant context from the primary Mozambique-Madagascar dimensions and the corollary risks that papal messaging might continue with the threads of a crusade against poverty, exclusion, exploitation, elite corruption and clannish nepotism. The latter risks, one must assume, were to be carefully managed by the Catholic Diocese and the well-briefed Vatican staffers, to avoid what would have been such embarrassing messages for a government that is currently in a clear cajoling and fishing expedition towards a particular segment of the Mauritian electorate.

In that context, and reading perhaps between the lines, it might have been considered safer by the joint organizing committee to shepherd the august personality to share his views on important but much safer and certainly less politically controversial issues such as the environment and youth concerns, while also taking time for meditation at the Père Laval caveau, where no canonization announcement was expected anyway. The unfortunate controversy about crude and ill-advised papal posters might have stemmed from such enthusiasm…

Strangely though, while laudable effort was made to associate outer islanders and, in particular, Chagossian representatives in the religious ceremonials, neither the PMO, nor the high-level organizing committee nor again the Vatican staffers took the opportunity of such a stage attended by hosts of observers and international press outlets, to express the Church and the Vatican position relative to the Chagos Archipelago’s ruling issued by the International Court of Justice against our former colonial masters for the pressured dismemberment of the colony prior to independence. One can imagine the mediatic repercussions a strong moral position in favour of natural justice, solidarity with the deported community and respect for international law might have had as the authorities engage the Foreign Office in the rolling battle to regain our undisputed sovereignty over the Archipelago.

Nevertheless, whatever the tactical considerations and guidance that may have been provided by local organizers, a high tribute must be paid by all Mauritians to Pope Francois who took the opportunity of a question by the designated Radio One journalist (Jean-Luc Mootoosamy) aboard the outgoing Sheperd One, to expatiate on precisely this topic with the refreshingly simple and clear words the international community has become used to with His Holiness. With his moral, religious and spiritual stature, it was perhaps an un-designed and unplanned moment but certainly the most significant political statement during this short hop-over.

Although the full text of the on-board papal Q&A session is available from the Vatican website, one clearly remains baffled that His Holiness was not granted an opportunity for such clear exposition during the internationally well-covered functions.

Let us simply take note of the following excerpts to consider the moral condemnation of the UK and its backers in the name of humanity and international institutions which countries have pledged to respect. These are strong words indeed from a respected international personality in spheres more accustomed to the niceties of diplo-speak and they are well worth quoting here:

“If we consider ourselves humanity, when they (the Hague ICJ or the UN) make statements, our duty is to obey. It is true that not all things that appear just for the whole of humanity will also be so for our pockets, but we must obey international institutions. That is why the United Nations were created. That’s why international courts were created…”

Equally strong was the Argentinian Excellency on the sequels of colonial empires, inexorably forced to vacate possessions and territories on the strength of a post-war historical movement:

“…there is always the temptation to leave with something in the pocket: Yes, I give freedom to this people but I take some crumbs with me…”

The Falklands, Gibraltar, the Chagos and other places may not be far from the musings of His Highness. And, in the same breath, busting the ideological and cultural dimensions of colonization, a battle started by pioneering but lonely, if not marginal and ostracized, intellectuals many decades ago in various parts of the world:

“..ideological colonization seeks to cancel the identity of others to make them equal and they come at you with ideological proposals that are contrary to the nature of that people, the history of that people, against the values of that people.”

Little might those freedom-fighters have suspected that one day, the head of the Catholic Church would be siding so staunchly and unambiguously with history and recognize the ills and scars left behind by centuries of colonization and the difficulties of birthing a new more fraternal order in post-colonial societies and on the world scene.

It is a welcome revolution and maybe the Pope was astute enough to enunciate such a historic position aboard Shepherd One rather than at an immense gathering of faithfuls in Mauritius.

* Published in print edition on 13 September 2019

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