Anthony McClaran and Dr Carole Murphy reflect on meeting Pope Francis to mark Anti-Slavery Day at the General Audience on 18th October 2023, first published online on The Tablet.
We started the morning in the British Embassy to the Holy See, a stone’s throw from St Peter’s Square, where in just a few hours we would be meeting Pope Francis as part of his General Audience.
As we departed the Embassy, we entered the Vatican and shuttled between various courtyards in the Ambassador’s Car, before arriving at St Peter’s Basilica. As we stopped, we saw the Bishops arriving to celebrate morning Mass as part of the Synod on Synodality. Anthony saw Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, who he knew from his time in Australia, and Archbishop of Southwark John Wilson, who remarked ‘It’s funny who you bump into in the Vatican!’.
Keenly anticipating our meeting with the Holy Father after a long period of planning, we took our seats in a sunny St Peter’s Square with His Majesty’s Ambassador Chris Trott. Pope Francis arrived in his car, and you could feel the energy from the crowd, with the different groups and pilgrims cheering as they were announced. The Audience provided a chance for solemn reflection as Pope Francis made a plea for peace in the Middle East.
As the Audience continued, the Holy Father made his way greeting his guests and, before we knew it, he had arrived with us. He greeted Anthony first and then His Excellency Chris Trott, who in perfect Italian explained the purpose for our being there and the mission of the Bakhita Centre to research and combat modern slavery.
Carole presented the Holy Father with a gift of artwork designed and produced by women from Caritas Bakhita House, a safe house in London for women who have been trafficked, enslaved, and exploited, and a copy of the book Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking: the Victim Journey, edited by Carole and Runa Lazzarino, which features the artwork as its cover.
Pausing for a moment, the Holy Father read back in English the title of the book before making a gesture of prayer to Carole and saying enthusiastically:
‘Go on! Go on!’
This moment perfectly symbolised the affirmation of our mission and the work of all who support the Bakhita Centre and the priority Pope Francis has given the issues of modern slavery, human trafficking, and abuse through his Papacy.
Following the Audience, we had a full day of engagement that brought home to us the truly global nature of the Vatican and its ability to bring together change makers from around the world to collaborate.
We attended an incredibly inspiring conference with Talitha Kum, the anti-trafficking network of women religious. At this event, Carole delivered a keynote speech on the importance of dignity, particularly through education, a message that the Talitha Kum sisters will be taking forward in their work. We listened to powerful testimonial from the women religious, who are the front line of support for victims of trafficking. This conference reinforced the importance of the work of the Bakhita Centre and the shocking exploitation of people around the world that we must work together to eradicate.
We also met with Fr Fabio Baggio, the Undersecretary of the Migrants and Refugees Section of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, and some of his colleagues, to discuss the work of the Bakhita Centre and opportunities to collaborate. Our conversations here reminded us about the truly global reach of the Catholic Church and the value of the perspectives it brings from around the world. Through his Papacy, Pope Francis has fostered this culture of diversifying perspectives, which can be seen most notably through his appointments of Cardinals and to leadership of key agencies.
Our last meeting was at the Dicastery for Culture and Education, where we were able reflect on why the work of the Bakhita Centre, and other centres such as the Centre for Research into the Education of Marginalised Children and Young Adults, is so important to our central mission at St Mary’s. Addressing injustice is at the core of who we are. We are a university that seeks to educate the whole person, using our Catholic foundations to reach out in service, and this goes back to our foundations in the 1850s, where St Mary’s was established to address the challenges of poverty and migration through education. This driving mission informs all we do as a university and runs through our curriculum design, research output and public engagement.
We are eternally grateful to the team at British Embassy to the Holy See for their work in planning and delivering this memorable and important visit. Attending the General Audience with the Holy Father and the engagement work we were able to do alongside this have given St Mary’s the opportunity to demonstrate the value we bring to tackling globally significant issues.
We have a great opportunity moving forward through the new alliances and networks we formed, to take these issues forward and place victims and their dignity at the heart of the conversation around modern slavery, human trafficking, and abuse.
Anthony McClaran is the Vice-Chancellor of St Mary’s University, Twickenham
Dr Carole Murphy is the Director of the Bakhita Centre for Research on Slavery, Exploitation and Abuse at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.