Pope Francis' trip to Morocco evokes memories of the past

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Pope Francis' trip to Morocco evokes memories of the past

By Marco Roncalli/ lastampa.it

Pope Francis’ trip to Morocco at the end of March - specifically to Rabat where he will hold several meetings, including King Mohammed VI, migrants, local authorities, priests – takes us back to the first papal presence in this country: that of John Paul II, in 1985, at the time of King Hassan II. Certainly the general situation was different: there was still the Cold War and the Soviet empire, the onset of Islamic fundamentalism with its criticism of the West had not yet broken out, a new Muslim protagonism began to assert itself in Europe without clamor, but, at the same time, the Sharia was reappearing in countries where it had not been seen for some time. And much more. Karol Wojtyla, however, was concerned first and foremost with one thing: that religious freedom be guaranteed to all, that the need for spirituality not be stifled, that ideological and political systems based on materialism not prevail. Hence his calls for collaboration between Christians and Muslims, to sensitize believers to an interreligious dialogue based on trust and acceptance of differences, while in Vatican diplomacy there were those who worked with discretion to protect Christian minorities in Islamic countries.

In fact, as Andrea Riccardi points out in his essay "Christianity at the time of Pope Francis" published by Laterza, in 1997, one of the most experienced diplomats of the Holy See, Cardinal Achille Silvestrini, declared in an interview his satisfaction with the "growing" relations between Rome and Islam just after 1985. Thus pointing out Wojtyla's visit to Morocco in 1985, as the first of the three most relevant facts in relations between the Church and Islam - at least chronologically (the following year there would be interreligious prayer for peace in Assisi, and in 2001 the trip to Damascus). In the Casablanca stadium, John Paul II , who found himself before eighty thousand young Muslims, including King Hassan II, said words that would be useful to recall today: "In a world which desires unity and peace, and which however experiences a thousand tensions and conflicts, should not believers favour friendship between the men and the peoples who form one single community on earth? We know that they have one and the same origin and one and the same final end: the God who made them and who waits for them, because he will gather them together. Dialogue between Christians and Muslims is today more necessary than ever. It flows from our fidelity to God and supposes that we know how to recognize God by faith, and to witness to him by word and deed in a world ever more secularized and at times even atheistic. The young can build a better future if they first put their faith in God and if they pledge themselves to build this new world in accordance with God's plan, with wisdom and trust. God is the source of all joy. We should also witness to our worship of God, by our adoration, our prayer of praise and supplication. Man cannot live without prayer, any more than he can live without breathing...".

That was an important stage on the road to dialogue, behind incomprehension and controversy, which are often the cause of war. Not even imaginable, however, are certain subsequent realities - such as 11 September or Isis - at the origin of different positions towards Islam in the Church, between the rejection of the "holy war" and the temptation of the "clash of civilization". Positions that should converge towards the idea of a possible coexistence that Pope Francis continues to point at.

And more, to Morocco, in the spring of 1950, a future Pope, then nuncio to Paris, also went but incognito. We are referring to Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, who that year made a trip to North Africa, leaving on 18 March 1950 from Marseille on the ship "La ville d'Oran", to preside in Algiers over the celebrations of the centenary of the consecration of Algeria to the Sacred Heart, and in Constantine to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the dedication of the Basilica of Saint Augustine of Hippo. The future John XXIII was therefore in Algiers, Tizi Ouzou, Tunis, Hippo, Constantine, Saint Arnaud, Oran, Fez, Casablanca, Rabat. He left Ceuta for Seville, Spain, on April 15 and, and after staying in Granada and Madrid, passing through Lourdes and Poitiers, he then returned to Paris on April 23. This peregrination stirred some concern as it involved him travelling in Tunisia and Morocco, two countries outside the territory on which the jurisdiction of the Parisian nunciature extended. Roncalli was however well received everywhere, even if he crossed Morocco as a private citizen to avoid diplomatic incidents. Once he left his concerns in Paris, Roncalli opened his heart "to the multitude of Arabs and to the countless populations of other races and languages of Africa" and to the "children of Israel", "in the mutual exercise of human fraternity". In letters to friends and family, he will summarize these four weeks as "a true triumph of the devotion of so many people to the Holy Father and to the Church". He was a witness who defined himself "eye, heart, hand of the Pope". Let’s take a closer look at the journey gleaning from his correspondence and diaries.

"I’m planning to go to North Africa from mid-March to mid-April, for my ordinary jurisdiction extends to those provinces, which have not yet seen an Apostolic Nuncio. They are an extension of France from the current political and administrative point of view. It will be a hard job for me, yet undoubtedly full of consolations. Christian Africa was one of the most flourishing and glorious conquests of the Catholic Apostolate of the first centuries...", Roncalli wrote to his nephew Battista Roncalli on 24 February 1950. While he offered his family a report at the end of the journey where, in a letter of 29 April 1950, he said: "...As a private civilian, I entered Morocco on 10 April, I believed it to be a dry and burnt country; instead, it is a true paradise on earth in the spring. There I visited all the sacred cities of Mohammedanism, the places where the Moors once held Christians slaves: Fez, Marrakech, Merkez, Casa Blanca, Rabat, etc.. Then Tangier, Tetuan, Ceuta. On the other side of the sea, crossing Gibraltar and Spain [...]; and then crossing the French border, Biarritz, Bayonne, Lourdes [...], and then Bordeaux, Poitiers, and Paris. Just think, 10,000 (ten thousand) kilometers with Dino, always on my big car [...]. I was received with great honor, decorations, speeches, toasts, heard and done, in 40 cities, towns and parishes. A feast, a joy to greet the Pope's Nuncio. Often those congratulating were Jews; the Arabs, who are the great majority of the inhabitants of Africa, also respectful people, and many of them united with the French Authorities [...] As you can see, the truth is one only, in Europe as in Africa: and it is in the Gospel of the Lord...".

In short, in the light of Abraham, patriarch of all believers, the future John XXIII, already in those years, kilometer after kilometer, blessed Christians, Jews and Muslims. Although he knew well that in the Code of Canon Law, in force since 1917, for believers of other religions the definition remained that of "infideles", although he himself wrote: "The journey to North Africa has reminded me more vividly of the issue concerning the conversion of infidels. The life and reason for being of the Church, of the priesthood, of true and good diplomacy lies there" (so he wrote in the “Giornale dell’anima” "Journal of the Soul" between 6 and 9 April 1950), Roncalli knew well that, at least since 1938, a Vatican commission was working on these issues, with a view to greater mutual knowledge and understanding.

In those lands Roncalli was happy to meet bishops that he perhaps already knew, but had never seen in their mission lands. He entered Morocco from Oujda at the eastern end of the country ("I am pleasantly entering the unknown, overcoming every temptation. We’ll have lunch and then head on a slightly long journey in the mountains towards Fez") and there he was, in the "holy city of Morocco". On April 11 he wrote on his diary: "I keep my name but will remain undercover, even at the Franciscan Fathers’ where I’ll celebrate as a simple priest as did at the hotel", adding notes on the visit to the city ("in the most humble and complicated districts where the poor people work" and in the center of the holy city "but without being able to enter the great mosques that are not comparable to the Turk ones of Istanbul and elsewhere"). On the 12th the journey he continues: "From Fez to Casablanca. Mass at St. Francis at the altar of St. Joseph [...].What a wonderful path of nature: the fields, olive trees, flowers and more flowers. Very interesting ruins. Rome reached here in the face of the Atlantic. Then Moulay Idriss: the country of the founder of Mohammedanism in Morocco. So characteristic and closed, as I had never seen anything alike: houses, streets, figures, among the Muslims of this small town on the cliff. We are now back on our way to Meknes, the holy city of Allah, once capital of Morocco. I ended up in the beautiful Franciscan chapel on the site of the Christian slaves. At 6.30 we arrived in Casablanca [...]. I dined and rested in the cell of the Vicar Abbé Logié".

On the 13th it was the turn of the journey from Casablanca, via Marrakech, to Rabat where the nuncio was fraternally welcomed by the Franciscan family of the Apostolic Vicar Monsignor Lefèvre with whom he entertained himself the next day, visiting the city after mass, before leaving for Tangier. Almost a pastoral visit. For that matter, wasn't his - first and foremost - a diplomacy of the heart, a diplomacy of the pastor? Diplomacy practiced not as "appearance-only", but expression of "practical results in the sense of justice, order and peace". Monsignor Léon-Etienne Duval, Archbishop of Algiers confided to the journalist Italo Pietra something that Roncalli had tried to explain to him. And that is that the purpose of his journey had not been well understood in the Vatican. He told him: "There is a tendency to see only the diplomatic aspect of the mission of a nuncio. For me the role of a nuncio is above all pastoral. I must help the bishops; it is therefore necessary that I gather information, on the spot, of their problems and their work" (so Pietra wrote in his book "I grandi e i grossi").

As if Roncalli had understood the meaning the importance of a service that, shortly afterwards, the process of decolonization would have made necessary in all its dimensions. That's not all. In his luggage to north Africa, the future Pope had brought the spiritual notes he had begun writing since his episcopal ordination. And he had found the time to reread them under a new light: "I blush for my inadequacies, for the little I am in such an important place, where the Holy Father wanted me and keeps me, for his goodness [...] And I remain faithful to my principle, which seems to always have a place of honor in the discourse of the mountain: blessed are the poor, the meek, the peaceful, the merciful, the thirsty for justice, the pure of heart, the troubled, the persecuted". Without distinction. Not by chance, six years earlier, preaching at his last Pentecost in Turkey on 28 May 1944, he said "We love to distinguish ourselves from those who do not profess our faith: Orthodox brothers, Protestants, Israelites, Muslims, believers or non-believers of other religions [...]. I understand well that differences in race, language, education, the painful contrasts of a past sprinkled with sadness, still keep us at a distance that is interchangeable, unpleasant, often disconcerting. It seems logical that each one of us should take care of himself, of his family or national tradition, keeping himself close within the limited circle of his own consortium [...]. My dear brothers and sons: I must tell you that in the light of the Gospel and the Catholic principle, this is a false logic. Jesus came to break down these barriers; he died to proclaim universal brotherhood...". It was not by chance, shortly afterwards, as elected Pope he would have had removed from the catechism not only the expression "the perfidious Jews", but also "Mohammedan perfidy".

Sun, 03/24/2019 - 17:59
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