Pope Francis celebrated his first Mass in Africa today in a truly festive atmosphere, marked by the sound of drums, the singing of 10 choirs, the ululating of women and the rhythmic movement of thousands of Kenyans as they danced to the music. It was an unforgettable sight and Francis clearly enjoyed it.
It was the largest crowd ever to participate in a Mass in this young country of 44 million people, 32 percent of whom are Catholic, and more than 70 percent under the age of 30. Nairobi’s police chief put the attendance at Mass at 300,000.
They came from all over the country to see and pray with this pope that, in the words of “Daily Nation” – the country’s best selling paper, “brings love and blessings.” Many traveled long distances and camped out under torrential rain the previous night just to get a glimpse of this leader of the Catholic Church who has reached the hearts of Kenyans by his humanity, his concern for the poor and his decision to ride in a modest car during his stay here.
They sang, swayed to the rhythm of the music and, standing in mud, huddled under a sea of multi-colored umbrellas, waiting for him to arrive. Many umbrellas carried the pope’s now famous words: “Who am I to judge?” They referred to Kangemi, the slum district that he will visit tomorrow. Their joy knew no bounds when, at the end of Mass, he not only blessed the many religious objects that they had brought with them, but also bade farewell in Swahili saying, Mungu awabariki! (God bless you!) and Mungu abariki Kenya! (God bless Kenya!).
Many think his presence here in Kenya and in Africa is as important as his words. At the same time, everyone recognizes that he is delivering a truly powerful message, urging people here to overcome divisions, whether ethnic or religious, and encouraging everyone to work together for peace and a more just and inclusive society in this country where, according to reports, 1 percent of the population owns 75 percent of the wealth, while the threat of attacks from fundamentalist Islamic groups is keenly felt.
In his homily, delivered in Italian but translated into English by his Vatican interpreter, Francis recalled that the Gospel had come to this land enabling its people to become “part of the great Christian family.” In actual fact, Kenya today is a majority Christian country, with Protestants counting for around 47 percent of the population, and Catholics some 32 percent.
Francis emphasized the importance of ‘family’ in God’s plan for humanity, and noted, “Kenyan society has long been blessed with strong family life, a deep respect for the wisdom of the elderly and love for children.” He told those present at Mass, including the country’s President Kenyatta, and the millions watching on television, that “the health of any society depends on the health of families.”
He said the Christian faith “calls us to support families in their mission in society, to accept children as a blessing for our world, and to defend the dignity of each man and woman, for all of us are brothers and sisters in the one human family.” That same faith also “calls us to resist practices which foster arrogance in men, hurt or demean women, and threaten the life of the innocent unborn.” It also calls believers “to respect and encourage one another, and to reach out to all those in need.”
Recalling that the Mass was being held in Nairobi university’s campus, Francis appealed “to the young people of this nation” to be guided by “the great values of Africa’s traditions, the wisdom and truth of God’s word” and their own idealism “in working to shape a society which is ever more just and respectful of human dignity.” He urged them to “always be concerned for the needs of the poor, and reject everything that leads to prejudice and discrimination, for these things are not of God.”
The Kenyans present at the Mass listened in respectful silence as he delivered his homily and urged them to put their faith in Jesus, and build their life on him, because he is God and “there is none besides him.”
He called them to be “missionary disciples” and be “channels of God’s grace, who enable his mercy, kindness and truth to become the building blocks of a house that stands firm. A house which is a home, where brothers and sisters at last live in harmony and mutual respect, in obedience to the will of the true God, who has shown us, in Jesus, the way to that freedom and peace for which all hearts long.”
He concluded by invoking God’s blessing “on all Kenyans.”
After Mass, the Cardinal Archbishop of Nairobi, John Njue, thanked the pope for coming to Kenya and said, “your presence here today has been a source of strength and spiritual nourishment.” He thanked him too “not only for being a pillar our unity but also a great resource on matters affecting humanity, which keeps us reflecting and learning, thus helping us to transform our lives.”
Before arriving at the university campus for mass, Francis met with 40 leaders of other Christian communities and religious traditions—Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and African Traditional Religion. The encounter took place at the nunciature and was hosted by the American-born nuncio, Archbishop Daniel Balvo.
It was an important meeting, particularly in the light of the terrorist attacks—marked by a religious dimension—that have rocked Kenya over the past two years, and which Francis in his talk labeled as “barbarous”: the attacks on Westgate Mall (September 2014), Mandera (December 2014) and Garissa University College (April 2015).
Francis was welcomed on arrival by the Anglican Archbishop Wabukala, on behalf of the other Christian communities, and by the Muslim Professor El-Busaidy, speaking for the other religious traditions.
Archbishop Wabukala told him his presence today is “great encouragement for all the Christians of Kenya.” He thanked him for his encyclical, and then went onto speak about “the increased activities of terrorism and radicalism” in recent times that are “threatening peaceful coexistence and integration within and across faiths and communities in Kenya.” He emphasized the importance of faith leaders cooperating together in the promotion of peace and national cohesion.
Professor El-Busaidy said it was an honor “to speak before a revolutionary minded man of God, with exceptional commitment and dedicated to serve humanity.” As religious leaders, he said, “we have a duty to promote justice, rightfulness, love, truthfulness, faithfulness and hopefulness.” And in a world where many things are going wrong, he said religious leaders, “must stand up in unison, clasp hands together in all things that are essential for our collective progress as one humanity.”
Francis, for his part, asserted that “ecumenical and religious dialogue is not a luxury,” rather it is “essential, something which our world, wounded by conflict and division, increasingly needs.” Indeed, “in democratic and pluralistic societies like Kenya, cooperation between religious leaders and communities becomes an important service to the common good.” Moreover, he said, in today’s interdependent world “we see ever more clearly the need for interreligious understanding, friendship, and collaboration in defending the God-given dignity of individuals and peoples, and their right to live in freedom and happiness.”
He went onto underline “the importance of our common conviction that the God we seek to serve is a God of peace” and insisted that, “his holy name must never be used to justify hatred and violence.” But he noted how “all too often, young people are being radicalized in the name of religion to sow discord and fear, and to tear at the very fabric of societies.” Given this fact, he said, “it is important that we be seen as prophets of peace, peacemakers who invite others to live in peace, harmony and mutual respect.”
He prayed that God “may touch the hearts of those who engage in this violence” and “grant his peace to our families and communities.” Looking to the future, Francis concluded by inviting the other religious leaders to join together in prayer “that all men and women will see themselves as brothers and sisters, peacefully united in and through our differences.”