The Southern Africa agenda of Pope John Paul II - who is to arrive here Saturday - will be shaped by a nation he won't visit: South Africa. During the nine-day tour, the Pope will grapple with issues such as Roman Catholicism's response to social forces as diverse as Marxism and African religions, and unspoken pressures to support the views of Mozambican bishops on how to end that nation's civil war.
He is bypassing South Africa on the advice of its bishops, forceful opponents of the government's segregationist, ``apartheid,'' policies, as he visits black-led neighbors Zimbabwe, Botswana, Lesotho, Swaziland, and Mozambique.
The Pope's first stop, Zimbabwe, could be the venue for an elaboration of Catholic opposition to apartheid when he closes a meeting of bishops from eight Southern African countries. It will be the only time he sees South African bishops.
``Every voice able to speak on behalf of the people has been silenced except the church,'' said Bishop Wilfred Napier, president of South Africa's Catholic Conference, upon arriving here. Church leaders fear they are next, he added.
Zimbabwe offers an intriguing encounter with African Marxism. President Robert Mugabe has been quoted, saying: ``All the basic tenets of socialism which we espouse so fervently are at the core of the Christian philosophy.''
His followers often push the point further. ``I believe in Marxism and Leninism in the same way I believe in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ,'' one of them recently said in Parliament. Conservative Zimbabwe bishops dislike this linking, and hope the Pope will clearly spell out his view of the differences.
Yet criticism may be muted because Mugabe-style socialism, in practice, closely resembles the path between capitalism and socialism favored by the Pope and the local church. Zimbabwe has made ``incredible, indeed miraculous'' advances in health care, education, and rural development since the overthrow of white minority rule in 1980, says the chairman of Zimbabwe's Catholic Justice and Peace Commission.
Posing political questions may prove simpler than coming to grips with African spirituality in a region where Christians remain a minority despite 400 years of missionary activity. (Only about 15 percent of the region's people are Catholic, a roughly equal number Protestant. The majority adhere to ancestral beliefs.)
In Swaziland, where traditional religions are strong, the Pope will encounter a familiar issue: how to support the points of agreement Catholicism has with African traditional religions without going too far in reshaping the Catholic message for local consumption.
In 38 previous international trips as Pope, John Paul II has visited no country so disrupted by war as Mozambique, and few where the key Catholic hierarchy offers such contradictory advice.
Protestant leaders, like Christian Council of Mozambique Administrative Secretary Samuel Machava, condemn the guerrilla group ``as an organization without political goals,'' and see no basis for talks with a group that is ``killing everyone and destroying everything.''
Local Catholic leaders, however, tend to treat the rebels, believed to be backed by South Africa, as a competing force with the ruling Marxist government. ``We believe in dialogue,'' says Bishop Jaime Goncalves, an influential conservative. ``And to make this dialogue possible we need to change the minds of both sides.''
The difference reflects a legacy of conflict between the Catholic Church and the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), rooted in Catholicism's former ties to the Portuguese colonial regime that ruled Mozambique until 1975. Bishops were paid by the government and backed its drive to crush the Frelimo independence fighters. Protestant churches were tightly restricted. ``Nowhere else had the central ecclesiastical system been so closely identified with colonial oppression,'' writes Adrian Hastings, the leading historian on Christianity in Africa.
After independence, many Frelimo militants retaliated by moving against the church, illegally seizing religious buildings. A church-state thaw began about five years ago when the government returned some properties. The warming trend has accelerated, and in a pre-Papal move, the government in June pledged to return all religious buildings.
Mozambican officials hope the Pope will join Protestants, foreign Catholics, and Western governments in condemning South African ``destabilization'' as the root cause of the war. If John Paul II ``sees the effects of apartheid and the true nature of the conflict,'' he will reject the local hierarchy's idea of ``two forces, of a civil war,'' says Jose Luis Caba,co, Frelimo's foreign secretary and chief liaison to the church. Bishops express confidence he will confirm their stance.