Archbishop Giovanni Becciu, sostituto at the Vatican Secretariat of State, is from the island of Sardinia, where the shrine is located.
It was the archbishop who suggested to the Pope that a pilgrimage to Our Lady of Bonaria could be a way for him to be close to his own Buenos Aires.
The archbishop told ZENIT the story:
ZENIT: Pope Francis will go to the shrine of Bonaria in Sardinia on Sept. 22. How did this come about?
Archbishop Becciu: One day the Holy Father explained to me how Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, owed its name to a group of Sardinian sailors who landed in Argentina in 1580 and suggested to -- or imposed on -- Spanish explorer Juan de Garay to name the nascent city after the shrine of Cagliari, Our Lady of Bonaria [Good Air].
On seeing the Pope’s interest in that shrine and knowing that he would not be going back immediately to Argentina, it came to me spontaneously to say to him: why don’t you console yourself by making a visit to the neighboring "Buenos Aires" of Sardinia? It was just a simple joking remark. A few days letter the announcement was made of his trip to Cagliari [the city on the island of Sardinia where the shrine is located]!
ZENIT: What can we tell our readers about the history of the statue?
Archbishop Becciu: It is said that on March 25, 1370, a ship coming from Catalonia was in difficulty offshore of Cagliari due to a violent and sudden storm and, in order not to sink, they lightened the ship by throwing the cargo into the sea, among which was a bulky box. As soon as it touched the water, the storm subsided and the box arrived calmly on the Cagliari beach. The friars of the Mercedarian monastery, situated on the hill of Bonaria overlooking the beach, opened the box and found a large statue of carob wood of the Virgin Mary inside, which held in one hand and arm the Baby Jesus and in the other hand a lighted candle. The Madonna, represented in the statue, was then given the name Our Lady of Bonaria, the place where she was found.
ZENIT: It is said there was a unique miracle?
Archbishop Becciu: What I have already referred to: the storm was calmed. Beyond the miracle, which often is compared to the origin of the history of the finding of other miraculous statues also in Latin America, the most important fact is that devotion to Our Lady of Bonaria spread quickly both in Sardinia as well as among the Spanish sailors. Thus it was that Our Lady of Bonaria became the protectress of seafarers and the highest patroness of Sardinia, in addition to being the object of pilgrimages and a point of cohesion among Sardinians.
ZENIT: It was a shrine of the Mercedarians. They worked for the protection of prisoners from the Moors but also of the Indians of America.
Archbishop Becciu: The Mercedarian friars established themselves on that hill in 1335: they have been present for a good seven centuries! We know well that Saint Peter of Nolasco founded the Order at Barcelona in 1218 for the purpose of freeing Christian prisoners enslaved by the Muslims. In the course of the centuries they were covered with merits engaging in assistance to the neediest classes and at the same time keeping alive the devotion to the shrine of Bonaria. With Pope Francis’ forthcoming visit, he will be the fourth Pope to be welcomed by the Mercedarian friars: the first was Paul VI in 1970 followed by John Paul II and Benedict XVI.
ZENIT: Your Excellency is from Sassari [at the northwest of the island]. How do the Sardinians feel about the Pope’s visiting them?
Archbishop Becciu: I am from Pattada, country of the Diocese of Ozieri, in the province of Sassari. Recently I was on vacation on my beautiful island and I was able to see directly the anxious waiting there is among my countrymen for the Pope’s visit. I am proud of the predilection shown to them and I’m sure that they will give him an extraordinary welcome.
ZENIT: Yours is a land of shepherds, but also of winds, ports, seafarers and, I imagine, of so many Sardinian immigrants in Latin America.
Archbishop Becciu: Sardinia has now become famous for its natural beauties, for the traditional hospitality of its inhabitants, for its food, for being the goal of international tourism. Beyond this charming aspect, the island, alas, is facing a very grave employment crisis, which especially affects young people, who are forced to emigrate elsewhere to make their living. This is an aspect that because of its dramatic force is bound to emerge during the Pope’s visit. The hope is nourished that he will be able to shake and encourage the political authorities and local entrepreneurship to find apt solutions to come out of the tunnel.
[Translation by ZENIT]