Exclusive interview with Australian Ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy, on the feast day of St. Bakhita
VATICAN CITY — At this week’s Sunday Angelus, Pope Francis called the Christian faithful to set aside February 8, the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947) — a Sudanese-born former slave who became a religious Sister in Italy — as a day of prayer against human trafficking.
This day, he said, would allow people across the world to “help today’s new slaves break the heavy chains of exploitation and to regain their freedom and dignity.”
“I think especially of the many women and men and of the many children. We must make every effort to stamp out this crime, this intolerable shame,” Pope Francis said.
One of the most prominent and influential figures at the Vatican in the campaign against human trafficking, which has become a central focus of this pontificate, has been Australia’s recently retired ambassador to the Holy See, John McCarthy.
McCarthy presented his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on November 12, 2012, just three months before the pontiff would announce his resignation.
On St. Bakhita’s feast day, Aleteia sat down with Ambassador McCarthy to discuss the new prominence being given to St. Bakhita’s feast day.
In part one of this two-part interview, McCarthy talks about the steps the Holy See has taken to eradicate modern slavery and human trafficking; the likelihood that the issue will be discussed and included in the joint declaration signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow this Friday in Cuba; and how the Holy See’s current engagement with the issue began when Pope Francis wrote a few words on the back of an envelope.
Ambassador McCarthy, one year ago the feast of St. Bakhita was designated as a special day of prayer to end human trafficking and modern slavery. What can you tell us about the new prominence that has been given to St. Bakhita’s feast day?
St. Bakhita was canonized in 2000 by Pope John Paul II. As he intended, St. Bakhita has become a focus for the Church in relation to issues concerned with those, coming to hope and dignity, who have through modern slavery and human trafficking, suffered complete loss of hope and belief in man or God. St. Bakhita is one of the great examples of this in our time.
She has been singularly described in that way by Pope Benedict in his Encyclical Spe Salvi. There she is referred to as one of the beacons of hope for the lost and oppressed.
This year, in the commemoration in Rome of St. Bakhita’s feast day, Pope Francis has renewed his commitment and that of the Church to the cause of eradicating modern slavery, to end supply-lines that commence with forced labor, to bring to dignity and a life of freedom all those who suffer in human trafficking and modern slavery: the desperate, the most disadvantaged and the poorest of the poor.
There is much to hope for on St. Bakhita’s feast day 2016. The cause against human slavery and human trafficking, for which her canonization in 2000 was a great milestone, taken together with the anti-trafficking Protocols of the UN, has seen greater attention in our world over the last three years than in previous times. The eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking now has world prominence and attention that this cause deserves.
Over the last twelve months, many Christians have sought the intercession of St. Bakhita to guide and inspire all those seeking to end modern slavery. It is a source of great spiritual strength to the anti-slavery movement that the commemoration of St. Bakhita’s feast day has been taken up by various Catholic bishops’ conference in different parts of the world, so that who she is is become better known. Her intercession will continue to be sought. She has been one of the saints to whom Pope Francis and others have prayed for support in their work against modern slavery.
Why has human trafficking and modern slavery gained such considerable prominence in recent years?
There are a number of reasons.
A principle reason is Pope Francis himself. The scourge of modern slavery and human trafficking is a high priority for Pope Francis, which he carried over from his days in Argentina. One of the first acts in 2013, as the new pope, was to request the chancellor of the Pontifical Academies, Msgr. Sanchez Sorondo, a fellow Argentinian, in a message written on an envelope to immediately take up the issue of human trafficking.
In response, Msgr. Sanchez and the Pontifical Academies convened an important world conference on these issues at the Vatican in November of 2013. Little more than a month later, Pope Francis, in a famous address to new ambassadors, declared that human trafficking was a crime against humanity and that this scourge of our age was a product of human will that could be and would be overcome by stronger wills acting with principle and compassion.
Pope Francis first and foremost is interested not in discussion as such about these issues but in a holistic approach that says that this generation should be the generation that eradicates modern slavery and human trafficking.
Subsequently, in December 2014, major faith leaders came together in Rome to endorse a joint declaration, condemning modern slavery and human trafficking as a crime against humanity and pledging their faith communities to work together for the eradication of this scourge.
In 2015, in work associated with Pope Francis and the Holy See, Msgr. Sanchez joined Kevin Hyland, the British Anti-Slavery commissioner, at the center of the campaign that led to the U.N.
Sustainable Development Goals being amended to include 8.7. This provision now calls for the immediate eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking. These amendments committed 193 nations to this fundamental objective for human freedom, along with the end of child labor and associated evils. This commitment by all the world’s nations assembled at the UN was not in the drafts of the SDGs at the the beginning of the year, it was not there in 2014, the year before. Until the amendment through clause 8.7 the whole SDG process was without a clear statement about modern slavery and human trafficking.
More recently, Cardinal Pell, the Prefect for the Economy at the Holy See, announced, in the context of the Global Foundation international conference on papal teaching on the economy and society, that the Vatican would slavery-proof its own supply lines. In association with the Global Foundation conference, the Consumer Goods Forum, the major international grouping of supermarkets, with nearly three trillion euros in turnover, announced that they were also moving to cease any association with firms that used forced labor — that is, with those who are working in slave conditions. Both these statements are of worldwide importance and influence.
Was eradicating modern slavery and human trafficking among the topics you discussed with Pope Francis in your final meeting with him?
When I had my farewells with the Holy Father, this was the first matter I mentioned to him, and he was most pleased about these arrangements being put in place to stop the exploitation of the most vulnerable.
Pope Francis said again to me that purchasing goods is not just a commercial action but a moral action.
Do you anticipate that the joint declaration to be signed by Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow this Friday might well include a statement about the eradication of modern slavery and human trafficking?
Patriarch Kirill and the Orthodox Church have spoken out against modern slavery and human trafficking. It is entirely possible that, in the historic joint declaration between him and Pope Francis, there is specific mention of the Churches working together to eradicate this terrible evil.
Human trafficking is a major issue in the world, along with widespread religious persecution in the Middle East, Africa, and other parts of the world. This undoubtedly will be a subject of exchange between the pope and the patriarch.
Other issues where they would be of like mind and could act together to free the poor, the oppressed and the persecuted would be human trafficking and modern slavery. It would seem to be one of the ideal issues on which there could be immediate and prominent agreement between them and provide an important pathway for further cooperation and exchanges.
All people of goodwill throughout the world would applaud such a statement.
[Read Part 2 of our interview with Ambassador McCarthy here.]
Diane Montagnais Rome correspondent for Aleteia’s English edition.