In a conciliatory gesture 37 years after the Falklands War, military bishops from Great Britain and Argentina exchanged images of the Virgin Mary on Wednesday in St. Peter’s Square, blessed by Pope Francis.
Some Argentine troops carried a 35cm replica of Our Lady of Lujan, patroness of Argentina, with them, for divine protection, as they invaded in April 1982, the Falkland Islands, the British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, over which Argentina claims sovereignty.
When the military conflict ended, 74 days later in a victory for Britain, the Marian statue, left in a church during the Argentine retreat, was taken to Great Britain.
A Catholic Church official responsible for the Falklands gave it to the Catholic military chaplain who had arrived with the British forces. The statue was then taken to Britain and found a home in the Catholic Military Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Aldershot, in southern England, where it had remained until now.
Bishop Paul Mason of the UK Forces returned the statue Oct. 30 to Bishop Santiago Olivera of the Argentine Forces in St. Peter’s Square after the pope’s General Audience. In return, Bishop Olivera offered a replica statue to serve as its replacement in the Aldershot cathedral.
Pope Francis blessed both of the statues, and was visibly moved by a plaque honoring the war dead in Argentina presented at the audience. The gravestone was from a tomb at the Argentine military cemetery at Darwin, Falklands, and belonged to an, until recently, unidentified Argentine soldier, only known to God.
The Pope appeared to wipe out some tears after kissing and praying with one hand on the black marble gravestone.
“It was an intriguing story that met me when first installed as Bishop of the Forces and I immediately realized what a good opportunity it was, not only to return the statue, but also to demonstrate a united faith across two countries that have experienced political division,” Bishop Mason said in a statement announcing the statue exchange.
In 1982, St. John Paul II made an unscheduled 32-hour pastoral trip to Argentina during the Falklands War, following a visit to Britain.
“Today I come to pray with you during these important and difficult events, which have been taking place for some weeks now. I come to pray for all those who have lost their lives, for the victims on both sides, for families who are suffering, as I have also done in Great Britain,” St. John Paul II said in Buenos Aires June 11, 1982.
“I come to pray for peace, for a worthy and just solution to the armed conflict,” he said.
On this trip, John Paul II prayed before the original statue of Our Lady of Lujan in the Basilica of Our Lady of Lujan during the conflict. Both of the images exchanged in St. Peter’s Square Oct. 30 are both copies of this original image that dates to 1630.
Pope Francis used to make frequent pilgrimages to Our Lady of Lujan when he was Archbishop of Buenos Aires, and would hear confessions in the basilica, according to Vatican News.
Also present at St Peter's square in Rome were Argentine war veteran Jose Palacios, military chaplain Father Vicente Martins Torrens, and a group of relatives of those who died in the war together with a group of lay people belonging to the Faith of the Centurion, an initiative for Argentina's war veterans that had originally set out to have the image returned go Argentina
The image of the Virgin will return to Argentina on November 3 where it will be received with full honors by Armed Forces together with war veterans and family members of the soldiers who died during the war.
After arriving in Ezeiza airport the Virgin will be taken in procession to the Basilia of Lujan. Once the image is in Lujan, Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the local bishops conference will hold a mass in celebration of the event.
Olivera said that at the initiative of the war veterans, the image of the Lady of Lujan bought from the Falklands/Malvinas will become a pilgrim image for our country and will be toured across the whole of Argentina.
We know that in a war everyone losses, Olivera said, but with this gesture we're gaining a supernatural outlook, and the presence of the Virgin of Lujan invites us to once again do what her son tells us to do
According to the bishop Wednesday's gesture arises from the fraternal bond between two peoples, the English and the Argentine, who are children of the same mother
It comes at a very particular moment for Argentina, in which we have to be reminded of the fact that we are brothers, that we can have different ideas, travel different paths, or chose different proposals, but we are always brothers and Mary invites us to this reality. We are a family and God is our homeland.
According to Argentine media reports delegates from the Faith of the Centurion movement suggested to the Pope that he travels to Argentina and then the Falklands, in 2021, to preside over an ecumenical meeting between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.
Apparently the same idea was shared with Bishop Mason who next February is planning to visit Argentina and the Basilica of Lujan, together with Father Alfred Hayes who at the end of the conflict took the image to England.