British military bishop returns Marian statue taken during Falklands War

Bishop Paul Mason of the UK Armed Forces L and Bishop Santiago Olivera of the Argentine Armed Forces St Peters Square Oct 30 2019 Credit Daniel Ibanez CNA Bishop Paul Mason of the UK Armed Forces (L) and Bishop Santiago Olivera of the Argentine Armed Forces hold statues of Our Lady of Lujan in St. Peter's Square, Oct 30, 2019. | Daniel Ibanez/CNA.

In a conciliatory gesture 37 years after the Falklands War, military bishops from Great Britain and Argentina exchanged statues of the Virgin Mary Wednesday in St. Peter's Square.

Argentine troops brought a statue of Our Lady of Lujan, patroness of Argentina, with them as they invaded the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory in the South Atlantic, in April 1982.

When the military conflict ended fewer than three months later in a victory for Britain's Royal Navy, the Marian statue, left in a church during the Argentine retreat, was brought to Great Britain.

The statue of Our Lady of Lujan was subsequently placed in the Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George in Aldershot where it remained until this month.

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. A total of 907 people died in the Falklands War on both sides.

"It was an intriguing story that met me when first installed as Bishop of the Forces and I immediately realised 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.

The sovereignty dispute between Argentina and Britain over the Falkland Islands, a South Atlantic archipelago located 300 miles off the coast of Argentina, dates to the 19th century. Great Britain has had control of the islands since 1833, and rejects Argentina's claims of sovereignty over the territory.

Amid negotiations over the territory, an Argentine military junta led by General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ordered a task force from the Royal Navy to retake the islands and the conflict ensued until June 20.

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.

One this trip, the pope prayed before the original statue of Our Lady of Lujan in the Basilica of Our Lady of Lujan during the conflict. Both of the statues 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.

"May the Virgin Mary, Queen of Peace, comfort and encourage you in this. At the feet of this sweet Mother we met yesterday in her Shrine of Luján, the Marian heart of Argentina. Together we pray for peace," St. John Paul II said in Argentina during the Falklands War.

"Not only for that peace which consists in the silence of arms, but also for that, full, which is the attribute of hearts reconciled and free from resentment," he said.

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