UK/Argentina: A Gesture of Reconciliation - 30 October 2019
A replica statue of 'Our Lady of Lujan' left by the Argentine military in the Falkland Islands following their defeat by UK forces in 1982 was returned to the Argentine Catholic authorities at a small ceremony during the Pope's weekly general audience in St Peter's Square on 30 October 2019.
When the Argentine military invaded the Falkland Islands in1982, they brought with them a small replica statue of the Marian icon 'Our Lady of Lujan', the original of which, since 1630, stands in the Basilica of Lujan in Argentina. The original has been an object of veneration for many generations and was declared by Pope Pius XI in 1930 to be a Patron Saint (or 'Patroness') for Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.
On the repatriation of the Argentine military in 1982, the Roman Catholic Apostolic Prefect for the Islands, Monsignor Dan Spraggon, entrusted the statue to the Catholic chaplain with the UK forces during the Falklands campaign (Father Alfred Hayes), to be installed in the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Michael and St George in Aldershot, where it became a focus for the commemoration of the war dead from both sides in the Falklands conflict.
Earlier this year, the Argentine Bishop for the Military, Bishop Santiago Olivera, contacted Bishop Paul Mason (appointed Bishop of the Forces by Pope Francis in 2018) seeking the statue's return from Aldershot. It was agreed that this should be done in the margins of a conference of senior Catholic clergy in Rome in October. Bishop Olivera promised a similar statue in exchange.
The exchange took place on 30 October in a small ceremony with Pope Francis during the weekly papal general audience in St Peter's Square in the Vatican attended by Army catholic chaplain Rev Michael Fava CBE, QHC. Pope Francis blessed both icons – as Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he had visited the Basilica of Lujan many times – and was visibly moved when he was shown one of the granite grave markers from the Argentine cemetery near Darwin inscribed 'Argentine Soldier Known only to God' by one of the small number of Argentine veterans also present. The statue will arrive back in Argentina on 3 November.
This was intended as a gesture of reconciliation by the UK clerical and military authorities but there is a risk that the statue will used for political purposes in Argentina, particularly following the outcome of the elections in Argentina on 27 October. The statue is likely to be paraded before veterans' groups throughout Argentina, which may heighten popular resentment against British sovereignty over the Falkland Islands.
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