This week, Pope Francis completed his fourth pastoral visit to Africa. During his week-long journey, he visited Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius. While South Africa was not included in the itinerary, his message warrants the attention of a South Africa contending with the aftermath of two weeks of violent mayhem.
Perhaps most poignant was the address that Pope Francis delivered to an interreligious youth meeting in the Maxaquene Stadium, Maputo, on 5 September. Much to the delight of his audience, Pope Francis encouraged hope amongst the young by referring to the example of the late, great Mozambican soccer player, Eusébio da Silvia. Overcoming early deprivation in the slums of Maputo, the ‘Black Panther’ went on to become one of the greatest soccer players of all time, scoring 733 goals throughout his career, including 41 for the national team of Portugal. Expanding on the soccer reference, Pope Francis noted the suffering caused by those who feel entitled to determine ‘who can play and who should sit on the bench’. In life, he emphasised, there is no such right – we should, he held, not seek to divide and separate and so create conflict; rather, like a soccer team, we should be witnesses to unity, reconciliation and hope.
In each country visited, the high point was the celebration of Holy Mass. In addition, apart from meeting with the bishops and priests of the local churches – and, in Antananarivo and Port Louis, visiting the shrines of persons beatified by St Pope John Paul II – he met with state authorities, representatives of civil society, members of the diplomatic corps, and, in Mozambique and Madagascar, youth organisations.
In a sense, all three countries are ‘on the periphery’ of the Catholic World; in none are Catholics a majority. Although Catholic roots in Mozambique run deep – dating back to the arrival of Portuguese colonisers in 1498 – only 28 percent of the population is Catholic. In Madagascar, the percentage is slightly higher at about 35 percent; while, in multi-ethnic Mauritius the Catholic population is also about 28 percent – a consequence, primarily, of one hundred years of French colonisation (from 1715 to 1814). Despite its minority status, over and above the spiritual succour that it provides, the Catholic Church is a vibrant contributor to societal development.
The prevailing circumstances in each country varies considerably: Mauritius, an African beacon of prosperity catapulted into the group of middle-income countries because of its vibrant tech-based economy, is in stark contrast to Mozambique and Madagascar, which are amongst the poorest in the world.
Despite having formally ended its civil war in 1992, Mozambique has suffered 27 years of sporadic violence since then during which thousands of persons have lost their lives. A ceasefire was finally concluded on 1 August of this year; national elections are scheduled for 15 October. The scourge of violence has, tragically, been exacerbated this year by the devastation wrought by two hurricanes, Idai and Kenneth, resulting in the deaths of over 1 000 persons.
Madagascar, too, makes for a sorry tale. Since gaining independence from France in 1960, the country has failed to realise its true potential. The world’s fourth largest island is mired in poverty. Its unique biodiversity – 90 % of the wildlife is endemic – is under threat from extensive mining operations that are exploiting the country’s rich mineral deposits from which the vast majority of the people have yet to benefit.
Corruption, too, is rife in both Mozambique and Madagascar – both rank in the lowest quarter of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception index.
The Pope’s primary message to each country responded to their unique circumstances. Nevertheless, common concerns were also addressed. In both Mozambique and Madagascar, the ‘environmental pope’, deeply conscious of the threat posed by deforestation, called for ‘integral development’ that ‘cares for our common home’. The World Bank estimates that since 1978 Mozambique has been denuded of forest area the size of Portugal; while, according to the French agricultural research centre CIRAD, Madagascar has lost 44% of its forest in the past 60 years. ‘The protection of the land is’, held Pope Francis, ‘… the protection of life, which demands particular attention whenever we see a tendency towards pillaging … driven by greed …’ not motivated by the common good of the people.
The overarching themes for the visit were those of reconciliation, hope and peace. Peace, said Pope Francis, will only be achieved in a society through the exercise of courage – particularly on the part of those with political responsibility. ‘Genuine courage: not the courage of brute force and violence, but one expressed concretely in the tireless pursuit of the common good.’ The Pope emphasised that the pursuit of lasting peace is incumbent upon all of us; it demands strenuous, constant and unremitting effort. The positive destiny of any nation, demands that we ‘recognise, protect and concretely restore the dignity … of our brothers and sisters’.
In Madagascar, Pope Francis invoked the principle of fihavanana; ‘the spirit of sharing, mutual help and solidarity … the importance of family, friendship and goodwill between people and with nature’. The principle, he said, reveals the soul of the Madagascan people.
In South Africa we have a similar concept, ubuntu; sadly, in the present circumstances, this ubuntu seems to be getting harder to find.
Professor Garth Abraham is head of St Augustine College of South Africa, a Catholic tertiary academic institution. These are his own views.