On September 9, 2019 Pope Francis will be the second Pope to set foot on the soil of Mauritius, 30 years after Saint John Paul II. During this papal journey, in the course of his visit to the churches of the Indian Ocean, the Pope will meet not only with Christians, but with Hindus and Muslims as well, who also make up part of Mauritian society.
The island of Mauritius is a tiny country of some 730 square miles (18 65 km²) – around a quarter the size of the island of Corsica, yet with four times the number of inhabitants. It is unusual in that it has no endemic population, but is inhabited today by Africans, Europeans and Indians. The religious makeup of the country also reflects this ethnic diversity, including Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus. It is a mixture of different characteristics which makes it a remarkable place where the local communities generally live in harmony, to the evident delight of Father Alexis Wiehe, a native of the island who is currently in charge of the cathedral parish in the city of Toulon, in France, but will be back on the island in September. “There are some tensions at times, certainly, but generally we get along well”, he says with evident satisfaction. “Our little island society could even be cited as an example of amicable relations between the different communities”, he adds.
The “tensions” between the different faith communities to which he is referring were very much in evidence at the time when the country gained its independence, on 12 March 1968. “During that difficult time the Catholic Church acted as a reconciling force. And at that time, as it does today, it played a role of the foremost importance in the country”, he explains. Nonetheless, Catholics are a minority in the country, accounting for around one quarter of the population, and the influence of the Church is waning. There is a crisis in religious vocations and, with the exception of some new communities such as the Chemin Neuf, which was established around 25 years ago and which continues to grow in the country, the Catholic Church is in decline. “The Mauritian people have not ceased to be religious, but their religion is under assault”, Father Alexis explains. The Christians, the majority of whom are Creole in origin, are deeply imbued with voodooism. They believe in the power of witchcraft, and this profoundly influences the way in which they practise their faith, which is mixed with a fear of evil spirits and with superstitions.
In the context of this difficult situation, the visit by Pope Francis has raised many hopes. He will draw people together, well beyond the Catholic community alone. “All our island is honoured by the visit of the Pope. The Pope unify the mosaic which makes up our island”, Father Alexis insists. In fact Monday 9 September will even be declared a public holiday, so that everyone can take part in the event.
The date chosen by the Holy Father for his visit will have a special resonance for all Mauritians. For in fact it is the feast day of Blessed Father Jacques-Désiré Laval. This Spiritan Father (Holy Spirit Congregation) was the first person to be beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1979 and is regarded as the great missionary of the island. On arriving here in 1841 he immediately set about learning Creole and also devised a little catechism in the local language. He took the Gospel to the former slaves there who had recently been set free by the British government and tirelessly travelled by donkey to the poorest huts and shanties, dressed in his worn and repeatedly patched soutane. He died in 1864 after an immensely fruitful work of evangelization. He is still celebrated each year, in great processions which go well beyond the Catholic community alone. In 2019 these processions will take place on the 7th and 8th of September in order not to conflict with the main event, which will be the outdoor Mass celebrated in Port Louis by Pope Francis.
On September 9 Pope Francis will be making a stop-off in Mauritius on his return trip from Antananarivo in Madagascar. He will be celebrating Holy Mass in front of the monument to Our Lady Queen of Peace, then he will dine with the bishops of the Indian Ocean Episcopal Conference. Following a visit to the shrine of Father Laval he will meet with the President of the Republic and with the Prime Minister. He will conclude his trip with an address to the authorities, to civil society and to the diplomatic corps. This will be his second and last public address of the day.