Pope Francis landed in South Sudan, the youngest independent country, on the afternoon of 3 February. The trip had to be postponed because of his health problems, but Francis never thought of postponing this important and symbolic visit to one of the most violent places on the planet. Sister Beta Almendra, a Comboni Sister living in this country, recalled the extreme poverty of the people and the unprecedented violence that victimises them, with deaths every day. She believed, from the very first moment, in the positive impact of the Pope’s visit, as it could help the ongoing peace process. There is a lot of hunger, most people can only eat once a day, there are too many absentees from school, the people have no jobs. Bishop Christian Carlasse, Bishop of Rumbek, together with his people, set out on a pilgrimage for peace from the diocese to the capital, Juba, to meet Pope Francis. They left on 25 January and covered 350 kilometres! This walk is all the more symbolic because the Bishop had to test his ability to walk, since he was the victim of an attack and was shot several times in the legs, and was evacuated to Kenya, at risk of death, to be treated! Even so, he risked this pilgrimage with his flock, all for the sake of the pacification of the country. The Spiritans arrived in the Diocese of Rumbek in 2012.
In Kinshasa, the Pope had already left strong messages of reconciliation, accompanied by lucid and courageous denunciations of the dramatic situation of a large part of the Congolese population. In South Sudan, the tone was similar.
In this young country, Pope Francis, accompanied by Archbishop Justin Welby (Anglican Primate) and Pastor Iain Greenshields (leader of the Church of Scotland), began by saying that such an ‘Ecumenical Pilgrimage for Peace’ is an historical rarity, and is therefore of capital importance and an opportunity to reopen the difficult paths of reconciliation towards peace. In his welcoming remarks, the President of the South Sudanese Republic, Salva Kiir, thanked the three prestigious visitors and considered this a historic moment. He promised to reactivate the dialogue with the opposition groups and evaluated as very positive the impact of these visits on national awareness and peace.
The words spoken by the three Christian leaders were harsh. The Archbishop of Canterbury was clear: ‘we come to you in this way again: on our knees to wash feet, to listen, serve and pray with you!’ Pastor Greenshields pointed to the goals: “We need leaders who care about the values by which our countries live, who care about the conditions in which people live, and who act out their faith in work amongst the most vulnerable and marginalized”.’ In his first speech, sitting next to the President, the Pope did not mince his words: “now is the time to say “No more of this”, without “ifs” or “buts”. No more bloodshed, no more conflicts, no more violence and mutual recriminations about who is responsible for it, no more leaving your people athirst for peace. No more destruction: it is time to build! Leave the time of war behind and let a time of peace dawn!” Further on he proposed: “it is time to move from words to deeds. It is time to turn the page: it is the time for commitment to an urgent and much-needed transformation. The process of peace and reconciliation requires a new start. May an understanding be reached and progress be made in moving forward with the Peace Accord and the Road Map!”.
Appealing to the figure of Moses, the Pope reminded the Catholic leaders that they are not heads of tribes, but ‘fellow travellers’, in happy or tragic times.
A moment of tears was the meeting with displaced people from the conflict, representing there the millions who fled their homes and lands to escape death. The religious leaders listened to the tragedies that victimised them and addressed words of strength, courage and consolation to them.
The highlight of the visit was the Ecumenical Celebration presided over by the three Christian leaders. Fifty thousand Sudanese sang and prayed for reconciliation and peace, values that are so urgently needed. The communion visible in the words and presence of such distinguished visitors was touching.
Sunday morning was marked by Mass, with thousands of joyful attendants. In his last major address, the Pope repeated the ‘no’ to war and violence and again appealed for hope, underpinning the capital importance of resuming a dialogue which leads to reconciliation, the only way to a just and lasting peace: ‘Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace!
Tony Neves, C.S.Sp.