From The Cape Flats All The Way To Pope Francis’ Open Door
Gorge Johannes grew up in a Cape Flats ghetto where doors were closed to him—now the pope has told Mr Johannes that his door is always open. And if not for the Covid-19 crisis, we might have had a papal visit to South Africa.
For Mr Johannes, South Africa’s ambassador to the Holy See, receiving a papal knighthood from Pope Francis in June was a great moment.
The ambassador was bestowed with the prestigious Knighthood of the Order of Pope Pius IX.
“My name is written into papal history, and no one can erase it,” Mr Johannes told The Southern Cross in an interview from Rome.
“That for me is wonderful. It feels like a miracle for me because I never thought anything like this would ever happen to me when I was walking the streets of Cape Town.”
Knighthood of the Order of Pope Pius IX
Pope Pius IX, the longest-reigning pope in history after St Peter, established the order in the 1800s.
The order, according to the ambassador, is awarded to people who have made special contributions to the life of the papacy.
“Pope Francis is very interested in African matters, and he sees South Africa as one of the strategic countries in sub-Saharan Africa,” Mr Johannes noted.
“If it hadn’t been for the Covid-19 pandemic, we might have had a visit from the pope,” he said,
“We’ve been working now for over a year to persuade him to go, but his programme has kept him busy, and he has travelled a lot. So now we’ll have to wait and see.”
The ambassador’s papal knighthood comes with benefits: he now has much closer contact with Pope Francis.
“I have always had a very good rapport with Pope Francis personally, and he has told me his door is wide open. I can just walk through, if needs be, and I have used this opportunity to ask him to help us even more in South Africa,” he said.
“I’m also able to move freely up and down in the Vatican, and I work very closely with the secretary of state and with all the institutions to ensure that South Africa’s name is written into history,” Mr Johannes said.
The previous ambassador to Switzerland said he has been engaged in a lot of activities to ensure that South Africa is firmly at centre stage in the Vatican—and it has not gone unnoticed.
Mr Johannes has been particularly active on Justice & Peace issues in Rome, including the peace mediation initiated by the Vatican in Mozambique and initiatives in South Sudan.
He said he works closely with the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development and its Ghanaian head, Cardinal Peter Turkson.
Mr Johannes also had seminars and was instrumental in teaching leadership to students at the Jesuit Pontifical Gregorian University.
He liaises closely with Caritas and non-governmental organisations operating from the Vatican too.
“Of course now we are liaising even more intensely, because we want to make sure that what the apostolic nuncio to Southern Africa, Archbishop Peter Wells, has set up in terms of feeding schemes and so on continues, especially for the very poor,” the ambassador explained.
The veteran of the anti-apartheid struggle noted that the social policy of Pope Francis, and the social programme of the Church, is similar to some of the Freedom Charter ideals.
“The Vatican does a lot of work for the poor, for the people on the peripheries, and they support schools, hospitals, clinics, orphanages, old age homes, and the social needs of people irrespective of race, colour and creed,” he noted.
Mr Johannes grew up in a big Catholic family in Elsies River in Cape Town. “We didn’t have much growing up, but we never went to bed starving,” he recalled.
His brother is Deacon Arthur Johannes, a lawyer.
Young George Johannes attended Holy Cross School in Parow and matriculated from Trafalgar High School before going into exile.
He hopes that the honour of the papal knighthood will give hope to many young people.
“I want this to be a message to young people who are very frustrated, who are going through turmoil and trauma in their lives, and who don’t have jobs and so on: that all is not lost and that there is always hope. They have to change their own lives and get up and be determined to overcome their difficulties,” Mr Johannes said.
“When I was a youngster, I didn’t have much of a youth. Apartheid chased us out of the country, but that’s when I decided that I would rather dedicate my life to making life easier for the next generation. I spent most of my young life in the struggle and I was very happy during that time, especially to be working with giants of our struggle who are role models and idols,” he added.
Mr Johannes said during apartheid, the Vatican had no diplomatic relations with South Africa. These were established only in 1994.
“Now I’m a part of that history too, and this is why I treasure this privilege which I have had to showcase South Africa,” he said.