The Pope comes visiting

Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

They are two sisters in their early sixties, one of whom is a spinster. It has been a long professional association with the family, as I treated the mother also nearly 25 years ago. On Sunday last, I attended one of the sisters who had an acute pain in the foot that was preventing her from walking, and she asked me whether she will be well enough to be able to walk to Marie Reine de la Paix next Monday to see the Pope. ‘Vous voyez Docteur, le bonhomme a 82 ans, et il a pris la peine de venir nous voir. Il faut quand-même que nous fassions l’effort pour aller le voir!’ Of course, I told her, and I am sure she will be able to do so.

It is no doubt a great honour for tiny Mauritius that the Pope has taken time from his 3-day Africa tour to visit Mauritius, and elaborate preparations have been under way to welcome him, on the part of the government as he is Head of the Vatican, which is considered a State, and also on the part of the Roman Catholic Church – which is one of the seven different Christian denominations. The other six are: Anglican/Episcopal, Assembly of God, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian. And within these seven denominations there are several sects which have their own interpretations of the Bible and practices that vary.

The Popes within recent memory have all been blessed with long life, but what is remarkable about Pope Francis is that he seems to be bubbling with energy even at his advanced age, which probably emanates from his sense of mission. And he looks to be in good health, which is just as well, because there are so many pressing challenges and responsibilities that leaders like him face as soon as they assume their roles.

One of the most daunting ones when he took over from his predecessor Pope Benedict was the ongoing sex scandals within the Catholic Church. Even as recently as 26 February 2019, the BBC under the title ‘Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal’ gave a detailed account of the ‘avalanche of child sexual abuse accusations in the last few decades’ that had taken place from ‘Australian country towns to schools in Ireland and cities across the US’.

It alluded to ‘high-profile cases and harrowing testimony’, presented in public inquiries ‘which have continued to keep the issue in the headlines’, citing the case of Cardinal George Pell who was ‘convicted of abusing two choir boys in Melbourne in 1996 (Note: he has recently lost his appeal). He is Australia’s highest-ranking Catholic, and was previously Vatican treasurer – meaning he was widely seen as the Church’s third most powerful official’.

Pope Benedict had been ‘accused of failing to protect children’. But to his credit Pope Francis set up a special panel to deal with the issue (though ‘it has faced setbacks, including high-level resignations’). Further, he ‘held an unprecedented summit on paedophilia in the Church’ in February 2019, promising ‘an end to cover-ups, saying that all abusers would be brought to justice’. With the conviction of many abusers among the clergy in several countries, notably the US, and the payment of huge compensations to victims of abuse, it seems that Pope Francis’s call for action is being heard at last. His Holiness may probably be appraised about the couple of cases that have been recorded locally (one of which is currently in Court), and he will no doubt then tender his wise advice.

What must be commended though is the fact that in the end the Catholic Church allowed the issue to be debated in the open and legal action to proceed so as to bring the culprits to book, at the same time as reflecting on preventive and remedial measures.

Another problem is the dwindling number of church attendances across Europe, even in countries as staunchly Catholic as Spain and Portugal, why, even Italy for that matter. There is also a growing number of atheists – even a movement called ‘Atheology’- in the Christian world, and in the US there is now a category called ‘Nones’: they are people who declare ‘none’ when they are asked what is their religion, and they are several million strong.

Notwithstanding the above, there is no gainsaying the fact that the great strength of the Catholic Church is in religion and education, and social services which is based on the principles of CTS (Catholic Social Teaching). Thousands of Mauritians of all denominations have studied in our local Catholic institutions and remember with gratitude their teachers, among whom in olden days were many Irish brothers.

Unfortunately I had a very nasty experience with one of them, Brother Christopher, when he was Rector of St Joseph’s College in I964. My younger brother was a student there and had sat for his School Certificate examination, but due to an unavoidable delay in payment of the fees for December, Br Christopher absolutely refused to reverse his decision not to promote him to Lower VI as was the routine practice then, while waiting for the results. This was despite my pleading with him for nearly an hour, and pledging on behalf of my father that the sum would shortly be settled.

I couldn’t help giving him a piece of my mind, banging the door of his office as I left. Redemption of Irishmen’s image came only after I met more reasonable and amiable Irishmen later during my brief sojourn in Dublin.

The Catholic Church runs hospitals and healthcare services in many counties, notably in Africa where these do not exist because of war and other conflicts, as well as government failure to provide such facilities. In Mauritius several private clinics were set up by the Catholic Church, but now there’s only the Nouvelle Clinique Ferriere Curepipe which remains, where I have had the privilege to do my consulting practice for nearly four decades, working and collaborating with dedicated nuns and nursing staff. Earlier this year we lost one of the family – for that is how we look upon ourselves there – Sister Marguerite Marie, whose humanism, professionalism and dedication were incomparable.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church does pronounce itself on political issues, as the papacy has often done (for example, writing off of Africa’s debt), and also on social issues such as poverty, to the extent of admonishing governments on their handling of the problem. Besides, its clergy is not averse to sending covert messages when voting time comes. We witnessed this some years ago here, when at a rally which was supposedly non-political, Pere Jocelyn Gregoire told the audience that they must vote with ‘la main lors le coeur’, which all Mauritians interpreted as meaning to vote for the MMM. But the lepep admirab wasn’t taken in, which shows that voter concerns do not ally with clerical agendas. And so much better for plural Mauritius, isn’t it.

Another point of interest is that the oecumenical spirit has bridged the traditional divide between Catholicism and Protestantism, and our affable Reverend Ian Ernest has shared a common platform with his Catholic counterpart to address issues of common concern and thereby also consolidate the Christian faith. Since then he has been posted to the Vatican in furtherance of this goal, as he declared before he left.

In spite of the negativity generated by the paedophilia scandal and the other internal problems of the Catholic Church, its actions at the grass roots level are testimony to its powerful organizational structure and the sense of commitment and dedication to the upliftment of its constituency, and collaterally of humanity at large. These are valuable lessons for all of us.

* Published in print edition on 6 September 2019

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