Sunday, 22 September 2013

Our Lady of Bonaria becomes the Pope’s port of call

The rose petals floated away from the ferry on the River Mersey in a beautiful, poignant and deeply precious moment of remembering deceased family members and friends. A nearby passenger sobbed quietly into the enfolding arms of her male companion. Everybody stood or sat in silence, busy with personal thoughts and memories as the chaplain said a brief prayer, the signal for the participants on this special Jospice-arranged cruise to scatter the rose petals onto the waves.

My own ‘special people’ featured my late grandfather, Henry Stuart Knight, whom I never met. His long years in the Merchant Navy and, subsequently, as the Captain of the Duchess of Bedford and the Empress of France spanned two world wars. I remembered my 19 year-old Uncle Frank, shot down into the North Sea as he and his crew returned from Germany a few months before the end of WWII. There were also the two crew members of the Royal Daffodil, to me, forever anonymous, but who saved the crowded ferry, its crew and passengers from a mine which had come adrift and floated between Liverpool’s Pier Head and Wallasey on the opposite bank. Years later, on realising the nature of the large ball with shiny spikes which, at 5 years old, I thought exciting and beautiful, I understood with a gasp why the adults stood in silence, watching the two sailors risk their lives to save us. Something uniquely valued and meaningful tempered the joy of an afternoon on one of the famous ‘Ferries across the Mersey’.

That is why, when Pope Francis visits the Sardinian town of Cagliari, he will tap into a 700 year-old tradition of the perils of the sea and care for all those who sail on her, in war and in peace. Visiting the shrine of Our Lady of Cagliari, also known as Our Lady of Bonaria (good air), he will inevitably pray for all those who travel by sea.

Every year, on 25 April, the statue of Our Lady is taken from the cathedral in Cagliari, becoming the honoured passenger on a similar memorial cruise. In the midst of the noisy enjoyment of an Italian festa, there are also the sombre moments as people remember their loved ones and throw their flowers onto the waves. The difference is that the people of Cagliari recall, not only those who have died, but also those who have been saved from the sea.
According to local tradition, on 25 March 1370, the feast of the Annunciation, a terrible storm overtook a Catalonian ship travelling towards Italy from Spain. In danger of sinking, its desperate captain instructed his crew to jettison the cargo, hoping that, by lightening the weight of the vessel, they would be able to survive the tempest. There seemed to be no improvement and the danger only intensified. He ordered the last remaining large crate to be thrown overboard. Immediately it touched the water, the storm ceased! Also, to the surprise of the crew, despite its great weight, the crate floated, rather than sank.

With the danger over, the sailors retrieved as much of the cargo as they could, but were unable to bring the large crate back on board. Eventually the captain decided to cut his losses and abandon it, returning to his original route towards the Italian mainland.

The crate finally washed up on the Sardinian shore, close to Cagliari and not far from the local church. Local inhabitants, hoping for profitable beachcombing after the storm, came down to the shore. The large chest attracted their attention, but it was far too heavy to lift. Local tradition relates that a child suggested that the priests might know how to move the box and its contents away from the beach, where it was threatened by the incoming tide.

The priests, Mercedarian friars, committed to the redemption of slaves, apparently succeeded in lifting the chest without any difficulty. On opening it, they discovered a wooden statue of Our Lady, holding the Infant on her left arm. Her right hand carried a lighted taper in a boat-shaped holder.  Jesus, the world in his left hand, extended his right hand towards the boat and candle.

Perhaps inevitably, sailors began to look on Our Lady of Bonaria (good wind - ‘bon aria’) as their patroness. After all, she had saved the lives of the crew of the ship in which her statue had reached Cagliari. Several centuries of stories of her intervention led Pope Pius X to proclaim her as Patroness of Sardinia on 13 September 1907. Pope Paul VI visited the shrine on 24 April 1970, whilst Pope Benedict travelled to Cagliari and to the shrine of Our Lady of Bonaria on 7 September 2008. During his time in front of the shrine, he told the assembled crowd:
“Mary is the harbour, refuge and protection for the Sardinian people who have within them the strength of oak. When the storm has passed the oak stands strong; fires rage and it sends out new shoots; the drought comes and it wins through once again. Let us therefore renew joyfully our consecration to such a caring Mother. I am sure that generations of Sardinians will continue to climb to the Shrine at Bonaria to invoke the Virgin's protection. Those who entrust themselves to Our Lady of Bonaria, a merciful and powerful Mother, will never be disappointed.”

The Cagliari statue of Our Lady of Bonaria is one of a group of so-called Taper shrines, one of which, Our Lady of Cardigan in the diocese of Menevia, dates back to the 12th century. In the period around the date when the Catalonian ship ran into difficulties offshore from Cagliari, their sailors and merchants thronged British waters. Sadly, in 1538, the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII led to the destruction of the original shrine and statue of Our Lady of Cardigan.

There is also a special link between the Cagliari devotion to Our Lady of Bonaria and the Pope’s former diocese of Buenos Aries. Spanish navigator, Pedro de Mendoza, who founded Buenos Aires on 2 February  1536, dedicated the city to Our Lady of the Buon Ayre (Fair Winds), keeping a promise which he had made to the Patroness of Navigators. Later on, when the city was resettled by his countryman and fellow Conquistador, Juan de Garay, in 1580, there was a problem and a compromise became necessary. As Pope Francis explained, “The founders who established Buenos Aires wished to name it the city of Holy Spirit, but the sailors, who had brought [them] there, were Sardinians and wanted it to be named the city of the Madonna of the Bonaria.” He continued: “There was a dispute between them and in the end they negotiated and [...] the name of the city is very long; it is called the Ciudad de la Santísima Trinidad y Puerto de Santa María del Buen Aire (City of the Holy Trinity and Port of Saint Mary of Buen Aire), but it was so long that only the last words remained: Buon Aria, Buenos Aires, but it is due to your Madonna.”

It is no coincidence that the Pope from Buenos Aires in making the sanctuary of Our Lady of Bonaria his port of call!

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