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Catholics around the world mourn Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela greets John Paul II in Johannesburg in 1995 (AP)

Catholics around the world are mourning Nelson Mandela, who has died aged 95.

In a telegram to Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s president, Pope Francis praised “the steadfast commitment shown by Nelson Mandela in promoting the human dignity of all and in forging a new South Africa built on the firm foundations of non-violence, reconciliation and truth”.

He added: “I pray that the late president’s example will inspire generations of South Africans to put justice and the common good at the centre of their political aspirations.”

Mandela had been receiving home-based medical care for a lung infection after three months in hospital. Mr Zuma announced his death on South Africa national television on Thursday evening.

Mr Mandela became the first black president of South Africa in 1994, leading the country’s emergence from the apartheid era after 27 years in prison.

He received support from Catholics during his struggle against apartheid.

In 1984 he wrote a letter from jail praising the Catholic Church’s engagement in social issues and expressing his appreciation for the pastoral care provided by Catholic priests on Robben Island, where he was held captive for almost two decades.

In 1995 he welcomed Blessed John Paul II to South Africa.

At the news of Mandela’s death Chris Bain, director of the bishops’ aid agency Cafod, urged Catholics to “build the world he wanted to see”.

He said: “Today, we have lost a brother, a leader, and a legend. But more than ever now, we must dedicate ourselves in Nelson Mandela’s memory to the fight for freedom, peace and justice.

“The greatest honour we can pay him – the legacy that he warrants – is that we build the world he wanted to see: a world free from any form of division, whether between black or white, rich or poor, man or woman.”

Cardinal Wilfrid Napier of Durban, South Africa, said in an interview with Catholic News Service earlier this year that Mandela had a touch of humanity rarely seen in political leaders.

Cardinal Napier said he came to treasure Mandela through regular meetings church leaders had with his African National Congress in the transition from apartheid to democracy.

“I always felt we should introduce ourselves to him again, but it was never necessary,” said the cardinal, who was president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference from 1987 to 1994.

Mandela “remembered names and faces and always gave us a hearty welcome”, he said.

“I came to realise that if he had met someone he had no trouble remembering their names or where they were from. To him, people mattered because of who they were, not the position they held,” he said. “That’s what I really treasure about the man.”

Cardinal Napier represented the South African Catholic Church in discussions between Mandela and church leaders beginning in 1990, following Mandela’s release after 27 years in prison, until he retired from public life in 2004.

Negotiations between Mandela and South Africa’s apartheid regime began in 1989 while he was still imprisoned. The late Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban said at the time that he was “astonished” to hear that the notoriously intransigent former President P W Botha had approached Mandela to discuss negotiating an end to the armed struggle against apartheid.

The negotiations were fraught with difficulties, and Mandela frequently called on the country’s church leaders to help overcome the deadlocks, Cardinal Napier said.

“When there was a problem, Mandela would say exactly how he saw the problem,” he said, noting that the South African leader was a “direct man and it was easy to engage with him”.

Mandela’s humility and self-deprecating sense of humour were other qualities Cardinal Napier said he valued.

In February 2001, when Cardinal Napier was inducted into the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II, Mandela was in Mozambique.

“He tracked me down to St Peter’s to congratulate me. He said: ‘Archbishop Napier, how wonderful that you’ve been promoted to this esteemed position and you still have time for all of us back home.’ I called him Mr Mandela and he said, ‘No, it’s Madiba.’ He wished me luck and asked me to pass on his greetings to everyone there.”

Mandela, who was born in 1918 into the Xhosa-speaking Thembu people in a village in South Africa’s Eastern Cape province, was often called by his clan name Madiba.

Cardinal Napier recalled a 1991 meeting at retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Cape Town office, where church leaders and liberation movement leaders were introducing themselves to each other.

“I could see Mandela quite clearly from where I was seated, and when the Methodist bishop’s turn came to introduce himself Mandela said, “That’s my bishop.’ He’s the only political leader I’ve known who’s … allowed himself to be defined in terms of his faith, not just in terms of political allegiance,” the cardinal said.

In one area Mandela worked against Church teaching. In 1996, during his one-term tenure as president, he introduced a law which permitted abortion on demand up to the 20th week of pregnancy, and up to birth for “serious medical reasons”.

In 2001 he was diagnosed with prostate cancer and, three years later, at the age of 85, he retired from public life. He made rare public appearances after that, but helped to secure South Africa’s right to host the 2010 Fifa World Cup soccer tournament.

On his 80th birthday, he married Graca Machel, the widow of the former president of Mozambique.

After his official retirement, his public appearances were primarily connected with the work of the Mandela Foundation, a charitable fund he founded.

On July 18, 2007, his 89th birthday, Mandela formed The Elders, a council that aims to tackle global problems.

In honour of Mandela’s birthday in 2011, US President Barack Obama called the South African leader “a beacon for the global community and for all who work for democracy, justice and reconciliation”.

Two years earlier, the US and 192 other UN member states created Nelson Mandela International Day to honor the African leader through acts of community service.

Every July 18, people around the world take up Mandela’s call for citizens to “take responsibility to change the world into a better place” by donating 67 minutes of their time – one minute for each year of Mandela’s struggle against white-minority rule – to helping others.

The parishioners of Regina Mundi Church in Soweto are among thousands of South Africans who have heeded the call, said Oblate Fr Benedict Mahlangu, a priest at the parish.

On July 18, 2011, members of the Catholic Women’s League were at the church at 6am to prepare a special meal for unemployed and homeless people in and around Soweto, Fr Mahlangu said, recalling that Mandela came to a service at the church to celebrate his birthday in 2010.

The church, the largest in Soweto, served as a refuge for anti-apartheid activists for decades. Bullet holes in the ceiling and the broken marble altar have been preserved and serve as reminders of the apartheid era.