VATICAN CITY — Safeguarding creation, promoting peace and reconciliation, combating corruption, and helping the poor and the sick will be the key areas of focus for Pope Francis when he begins his visit to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius tomorrow.
The six-day visit to southern Africa, Francis’ 31st apostolic voyage outside Italy, will have three official themes — “Hope, Peace and Reconciliation” in Mozambique (Sept. 4-6), “Sower of Peace and Hope” in Madagascar (Sept. 6-9) and “Pope Francis, Pilgrim of Peace” in Mauritius (Sept. 9).
During his visit, the Pope will give 15 discourses and homilies and celebrate three open-air Masses, one in each of the three countries. He will also have meetings with bishops, priests, religious, seminarians and catechists, as well political and civic leaders, and is expected to have his traditional private meeting with members of the Society of Jesus on his first full day in Maputo.
Francis will be only the second pope to visit these countries: Pope St. John Paul II traveled to all three, visiting Mozambique during the height of its 15-year civil war in 1988 and Madagascar and Mauritius in 1989.
Many changes have happened to the countries since then, one of the most notable being rapidly increasing Christian populations. In Mozambique alone, the number of Christians increased by 41% from 1997 to 2015, with Catholics now numbering 7.6 million out of a population of 27.1 million. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, the number of Catholics in Africa has grown from 45.5 million in 1975 to 234 million in 2017.
A former Portuguese colony, Mozambique shows the most striking changes following its deadly 1977-1992 civil war between a Marxist, one-party “Frelimo” government and anti-communist “Renamo” militias. The war cost 1 million lives and brought the country to its knees.
“I remember the Maputo market where everything was parched,” Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio lay community that was crucial in brokering the 1992 peace accords at its Rome headquarters, told ANSA. “There’s been growth since then, but now the problems are social: urbanization, abandoned countryside, no structures, institutions need to be strengthened.”
Peace has been interrupted since 1992, with clashes in 2013 between the Renamo militias and the Frelimo government that lasted until a 2016 cease-fire. An accord last month helped cement better relations, but peace is reported to be fragile ahead of elections on Oct. 15, making this papal visit more politically sensitive than normal (usually papal visits are deliberately timed not to coincide with elections).
President Filipe Nyusi, a Catholic, has “good relations” with Renamo, according to Riccardi, who believes the ruling government “will be fine” if the Renamo militias are not humiliated but rather integrated.
For the Church, an increasing challenge is Pentecostalism spreading throughout the African continent, as is Islam and the growing threat of Islamism, both of which are particularly affecting young people. Since 2017, more than 250 people have been killed by Islamists in Mozambique. One of the Pope’s first engagements will be an interreligious meeting with young people in Maputo, Mozambique’s capital.
The Pope will also be focusing on the sick, especially in Mozambique, where he is to visit a hospital in Maputo that cares for AIDS patients. The Sant’Egidio community will again be the focus, as it carries out its DREAM project (Disease Relief through Excellent and Advanced Means) — a program to treat AIDS sufferers that began in 2002 and is now present in 11 African countries.
“When we started the project, there was no possibility to be treated for HIV/AIDS in Africa,” Gianni Giudotti, DREAM’s general secretary, told the Register from Maputo. The project enabled them, and children born from mothers who were HIV-positive, to be treated in the absence of resources and facilities. “People think AIDS has been resolved,” said Giudotti, who noted that 7 million people in Africa still need treatment.
“People are very enthusiastic about the Pope’s visit, especially among the poorest,” he said. “The Pope represents hope for them, especially reconciliation and peace. This is very important for this country, and they know how much the Catholic Church has worked for peace, so the Pope represents a real, tangible sign.”
Migration also presents another challenge, especially to Mozambique, where many are emigrating to South Africa, and immigration from countries such as Somalia and Ethiopia is provoking xenophobia.
Both Mozambique and Madagascar have faced environmental challenges, with two of the worst tropical cyclones on record striking Mozambique in March and April. The storms caused catastrophic damage also in Zimbabwe and Malawi, and it left more than 1,300 people dead and many more missing.
Many citizens were, therefore, hoping the Pope would visit Beira, the coastal town where Cyclone Idai made landfall and led to 600 people losing their lives, but the Pope said in a video message that although he was unable to leave the capital, he would not forget them. “I would like to leave you with this certainty: You are all in my prayers. I look forward to meeting you,” he said in reference to the fact that many from the city will be traveling to Maputo to meet him.
Vatican officials say the Pope will use the visit to renew his appeals made in his 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si to safeguard creation. Both Mozambique and Madagascar have been hit by deforestation, latterly caused by demand for rosewood from China, which is thought to have exacerbated the effects of the cyclone.
Madagascar and Mauritius
Madagascar, meanwhile, is home to plants and animals found nowhere else on Earth. Highly regarded for its biodiversity, it is called the “eighth continent” by some ecologists. The Pope, who will spend most of his visit in the former French colony, said in a video message to the Madagascar faithful that it is “our duty” to care for its natural beauty, but added that another beauty “even more dear to Christ and to the Pope” is that of “his people” and their holiness. He said his aim is to visit the country to confirm the people in faith and that, through the Blessed Virgin, they would obtain the gift to draw from the faith.
In Madagascar’s capital of Antananarivo, the Pope will visit the Catholic humanitarian organization Akamasoa, founded in 1989 by an Argentinian-Slovenian missionary, Father Pedro Opeka. Awarded the Legion of Honor in 2007, Father Opeka has helped thousands of Madagascan poor and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 and 2013.
The Pope will end his visit with a brief, one-day stop in Mauritius, a small island-nation famous for its beaches and exotic holiday resorts. Relatively rich compared to Madagascar and Mozambique, the former Dutch, French and British colony has also been a largely peaceful country, with a Hindu-majority population (as in Mozambique, Catholics make up about 28% of the population; in Madagascar, it’s slightly higher, at 35%).
While there, the Pope will visit a shrine dedicated to Blessed Jacques-Dèsirè Laval, a 19th-century French Spiritan missionary who helped the poor, the sick and former slaves. John Paul II beatified Father Laval in 1979.
A recent financial scandal led to the resignation of Mauritius’ first female president last year, which observers believe will likely prompt the Pope to say a few words against financial corruption.
But despite the challenges facing the countries, the Pope is expected to focus more on the positive and bring a message of hope. “The image we have of Africa, which is usually spread, is of a continent full of problems, conflicts, epidemics,” Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, told Vatican News.
“I think Africa is primarily a land rich in humanity, a land rich in values, a land rich in faith, and I think those are precisely the sentiments of the Pope.” The Holy Father, Cardinal Parolin added, “will want to identify and promote all those signs of hope that efforts are being made to resolve many conflicts and for sustainable development.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.
He will be traveling on the papal plane, reporting on Pope Francis’ Sept 4-10 trip to Africa.