ROME – With Pope Francis as a witness, an image of Our Lady of Lujan that had accompanied Argentine soldiers as they fought a war against the United Kingdom over the Falkland Islands in 1982 was returned to its rightful owners today by England’s military bishop. In return, he received a copy of the image.

“The gesture by the church of the United Kingdom to return the image of Our Lady of Lujan to Argentina is a sign of fraternity,” Argentina’s military Bishop Gustavo Olivera told Crux on Wednesday.

“It’s a sign that began when at the end of the war, Britain’s military chaplain Father Alfred Height requested from the apostolic administrator of the islands permission to take the image of the Virgin to the military cathedral of Great Britain, to pray for the British and Argentine soldiers who had fallen during the war,” he said.

Our Lady of Lujan is the patroness of Argentina, and greatly venerated in the country.

On Wednesday, at the end of the weekly papal audience, Britain’s military Bishop Paul James Mason and Olivera met with Francis, who blessed the image. The small statue is a replica of the one found in the Basilica of Lujan, one of Argentina’s most important pilgrimage sites.

RELATED: UK military bishop to return statue to Argentina, 37 years after Falklands War

The pontiff also blessed a second image, which Olivera gave as a gift to Mason, so that people who go to the Catholic Military Cathedral of St Michael and St George in Aldershot can continue to pray for the war dead.

Also present at St. Peter’s Square in Rome were Argentine war veteran Jorge Palacio, military chaplain Father Vicente Martinez 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 to the South American country.

The image of the Virgin will return to Argentina on Nov. 3, where it will be received with honors by Armed forces and the Federal Forces, together with war veterans and family members of the soldiers who died during the war, known by locals as Guerra de las Malvinas, Argentina’s name for the islands.

After arriving at the Ezeiza international airport, the image will be taken in procession to the Basilica of Lujan, some 50 miles away. Once the image is in Lujan, Bishop Oscar Ojea, president of the local bishops’ conference, will celebrate a Mass in celebration of its return.

Olivera told Crux that at the initiative of the veterans who fought in the war, the image of the Lady of Lujan will become “a pilgrim image for our country.”

“We know that in a war, everyone loses,” he 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.”

RELATED: Our Lady of Lujan is a meeting point of Argentine Catholicism

“It comes at a very particular moment for Argentina, in which we have to be reminded of the fact that we are brothers, and 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 Elisabetta Pique, of La Nacion, Argentina’s major daily, when the pope handed the replica to Mason for him to take to Aldershot, Francis said that the one he was receiving is “prettier” than the original, as a way to break the ice. However, the journalist also points out that Francis was visibly emotional and pained when he prayed silently before a granite plaque from the Darwin war cemetery in the Falklands. It read “Argentine soldier only known to God.”

La Nacion also reports that Daniel Doronzoro, a member of The Faith of the Centurion, handed Francis a letter proposing he travel to the Falklands in 2021 to preside over an ecumenical meeting between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church. A similar invitation was given to Mason.

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma

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