By Inés San Martín
ROME (Crux) – Pope Francis lands today in Mozambique, the first of the 3 Ms of the Indian Ocean he will visit Sept. 4-10 during the 31st international trip of his pontificate.
He’s going to deliver a total of 15 speeches during his tour: Five in Mozambique, eight in Madagascar and two in Mauritius.
The Mauritius leg will be only 8 hours, but the pontiff will still have time to celebrate Mass; have lunch with members of the bishops’ conference of the Indian Ocean; visit the Shrine of Blessed Jacques-Desire Laval, the “apostle of Mauritius”; and visit the presidential palace, meet with government authorities and deliver a speech to the diplomatic corps.
This will be Francis’s fourth visit to Africa, and second visit to sub-Saharan Africa, and Francis will shine a light on the open wounds of this region: Wars, extreme poverty, the impact of the climate crisis, and economic exploitation. But he will also shine a light on a unique multicultural environment and the Church’s ongoing missionary efforts.
In Mozambique, he will be visiting a country still suffering the aftermath of the 17-years-long civil war that took the life of a million people and left four million living as refugees. When he addresses authorities in the Vermelha Palace on Thursday, he’s likely to remember the peace agreement signed Oct. 4, 1992 in Rome, thanks to the mediation of the Catholic lay movement Sant’Egidio.
With national elections scheduled for October, the situation is far from stable, and a final peace agreement, signed on August 1, is seen by many observers as needing reinforcement, and Francis is likely to call for reconciliation and dialogue during his visit.
Father Juan Gabriel Arias, an Argentine missionary who lives in Mozambique, about 120 miles from the capital Maputo, said that he believes Francis’s visit will help consolidate peace, strengthening the agreement signed last month.
According to the Human Development Index, Mozambique is the world’s tenth poorest country, with more than 70 percent of the 28 million inhabitants living in poverty; 43 percent of children under five suffer chronic malnutrition.
While in Mozambique, Francis will visit the Casa Mathew 25, a home operated by the Vatican embassy in the country and several Catholic religious congregations. Every day, approximately 100 people receive food, clothing and other assistance. The pope will also visit the medical center of Project DREAM, promoted by Sant’Egidio, that helps 3,800 people with HIV/AIDS.
Santos Pedro Gotine, secretary general of Caritas Mozambique, told Crux that the Catholic Church has a strong presence in the country: helping solve conflicts between the ruling party and the opposition, providing healthcare and education, and other charitable activities.
“The challenge the Church faces is to make people understand its evangelizing mission because many faithful are leaving and joining Evangelical churches that promise to solve their immediate problems,” he said.
The pontiff is also expected to talk about climate change and the devastating effect it’s had in the country, particularly in Beira, Mozambique’s second largest city that was heavily impacted by two back-to-back cyclones that killed more than 1,000 people in six months. The rapid deforestation of Mozambique – and that of Madagascar – due to slash-and-burn agriculture may also feature in the pope’s remarks.
According to the Global Forest Watch, a research platform from NASA, the country lost 3 million hectares of forest, 11 percent of its woodlands, between 2001-2018.
Arias, who has been permanently in Mozambique since 2014 after having made regular trips since 2000, said he believes that Francis will be surprised by the people he’ll encounter.
“The joy of the people will surprise him,” Arias told Crux. “And the faith, the deep and joyful way of expressing their faith.”
Arias’s mission in Mangunze is in a rural area, and he’s known by everyone in the region: Not only is he the one Catholic priest, but he’s also the only white person among 75,000 people.
This region of Mozambique has no access to electricity or TV. Arias is able to stay connected to the rest of the world thanks to solar panels and a satellite antenna.
The priest won’t be able to travel to Maputo during the pope’s visit, but that doesn’t mean his community won’t take part. He’s planning to use a television projector to show the papal events – a large white bedsheet will serve as a screen – and people from the 45 smaller communities he ministers to are expected to join.
He told Crux that if he could give a piece of advice to his compatriot, it would be that he “enjoys the people and the Masses, that are extremely jubilant.”
A former slum priest in Argentina, Arias is passionate about the ad gentes mission: Going there where the Catholic Church is not yet present. The pope is aware of his work in Mozambique, and Francis gave him a pickup truck to use.
He revealed in a 2018 interview that Francis, whom he knows well from Argentina, asked Arias to spend a week with him in the Vatican to talk about his missionary experience and soccer, the pope’s favorite sport.
A huge fan of the Argentine soccer club Racing, Arias has a small network of soccer fans from Argentina who help him. This includes the Messi Foundation, founded by FC Barcelona legand Lionel Messi, that donates enough to provide breakfast to 15,000 children a day.
Arias is not just a casual soccer fan either; he helped to establish Racing Club of Maputo, that is currently in the country’s second division and also receives help from its Argentinian namesake.
Mozambique became independent from Portugal in 1975, which led some 1,700 priests and nuns to leave the country, since the Catholic Church was seen as a collaborator of the Portuguese. This means the need for missionary priests such as Arias is high.
Perhaps, this too is one of the reasons for the pope’s trip to Mozambique, together with dialogue, peace, and the environment: October is, after all, an “extraordinary missionary month,” called for by Francis to mark the 100th anniversary of Pope Benedict XV’s missionary encyclical, Maximum illud.
On September 6, Francis will head to the second country of his international trip: Madagascar.