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Gerard O’ConnellJanuary 29, 2023
Internally displaced civilians are seen walking on Jan. 23, 2023, at a Protection of Civilians site in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan compound outside Juba ahead of Pope Francis' Feb. 3-5 visit to South Sudan. (OSV News photo/Samir Bol, Reuters)

Pope Francis will make his fourth journey to Africa on Jan. 31 to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, two conflict-ridden countries, to plead for peace in both lands and an end to the poverty in which so many people live. Hopes are high among the people there that Francis’ visit may kick-start the struggling peace processes in both countries.

The journey will be Francis’ 40th since his election as pope in March 2013, and once again is visiting countries that get little coverage in the world’s media but have endured tremendous violence and human suffering. He feels African countries, notwithstanding their gains in political independence, continue to be exploited for their mineral wealth, and he wants to draw the world’s attention to this injustice.

This visit was rescheduled from July 2021, after the pope’s doctors advised against it due to his health. Francis is able to walk with the aid of a walking stick, but he is likely to rely on a wheelchair, and be lifted onto the planes. The new itinerary has been tailored to enable Francis to cope with the various physical challenges involved. The pope’s travels will be confined to the capital cities of both countries—Kinshasa and Juba—in each of which he will celebrate one open air Mass, participate in some public events and have many meetings at the nunciatures (the Vatican’s embassy).

Democratic Republic of Congo

The 86-year-old Argentinian pontiff will depart from Rome airport for the Democratic Republic of Congo on the morning of Jan. 31, accompanied by three Vatican cardinals—Pietro Parolin, secretary of State, Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the dicastery for evangelization, Kurt Koch, prefect of the dicastery for promoting Christian Unity. He also will be joined by two Vatican archbishops: Edgar Peña Parra, the substitute in the secretariat of state (chief of staff) and Paul Gallagher, secretary for relations with states (foreign minister). In addition to his security detail and medical personnel, some 70 media operators from many countries, including America’s Vatican correspondent, will travel with him. He is the second pope to visit the country. John Paul II came here twice, in 1980 and 1985.

Pope Francis will arrive at Kinshasa’s international airport at 3 p.m. (local time). He will be welcomed by the prime minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge, who was born in Paris, and by Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, O.F.M. Cap., the archbishop of Kinshasa, and Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, the Italian born nuncio to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Francis will drive in the popemobile from the airport to Kinshasa, the capital city situated on the Congo River with a population of over 10 million people (15.6 million in the metropolitan area), where he will reside throughout his visit.

On arrival in the city, he will go directly to the Palais de la Nation, the presidential residence, where he will be given a state welcome by President Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, who previously has visited the Vatican. After a private conversation, the two leaders will address an audience of 1000 people representing the nation’s political and religious authorities, civil society and the foreign diplomatic corps.

The motto for Francis’ visit is “Tous réconcilié en Jésus Christ” (All reconciled in Jesus Christ), and reconciliation is badly needed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country roughly the size of Western Europe whose population of over 100 million is made up of 200 ethnic groups. The country is endowed with exceptional natural resources, including minerals such as cobalt, coltan, copper, hydropower potential, significant arable land, immense biodiversity, and the world’s second-largest rainforest. Despite the prevalence of these resources, 64 percent of its population live on less than $2.15 per day.

The first of Francis’ seven talks in the Democratic Republic of Congo will be to the nation’s authorities, and he is expected to call for an end to the violence that has caused millions of deaths in the past two decades, with 6 million alone between 1998-2008. Even today armed groups in the eastern DRC continue fighting for control of the rare minerals and land, and rape continues to be a weapon of war. Francis itinerary for July 2021 included a visit to Goma in the east of the country, but the visit was not included this time due to security concerns.

Francis is likely to underline the vital need for good governance, an end to corruption, care of the environment, the building of security and peace, especially on behalf of the many people now living in poverty, including 5.6 million internally displaced people living in camps. After giving his speech, Francis will drive to the Vatican’s nunciature where he will reside for the duration of his stay, which concludes Feb. 3.

The motto for Francis’ visit is “Tous réconcilié en Jésus Christ” (All reconciled in Jesus Christ).

On Feb. 1, Pope Francis will drive 5 miles to N’Dolo Airport, Kinshasa’s secondary airport, to preside at an open-air, Zaire-style, Roman rite Mass that is expected to be attended by 1.5 million people. It will be his only public Mass in this the most Catholic country of Africa where, according to Vatican statistics, 50 percent of the population are Catholic, 20 percent are Protestant, 10 percent are Muslim and 10 percent are Kimbanguisti.

At the nunciature that afternoon, Francis will meet victims of violence from the conflict-ridden eastern part of the country and hear their testimonies. Later, he will meet with representatives of the charitable and humanitarian organizations that are working in the country to provide essential health care, education and various kinds of humanitarian assistance to a sizable part of the population. Among them will be Caritas (including Catholic Relief Service), Jesuit Refugee Service, the Sant’ Egidio Community and the Focolare movement.

On the morning of Feb. 2, his third day in Kinshasa, Francis will drive to the Stadium of the Martyrs (named for the four leaders who were hanged for their opposition to the dictator Mobutu in 1966), where he will watch a festive event of dance and song. There, he will speak to tens of thousands of young people and catechists from all over the country. It is an important moment, as 65 percent of the population is under the age of 25—two thirds are younger than 15—and they can be a powerful force for peace. Catechists’ too are a vital force for the church in this country, numbering over 76,000. Francis will then return to the nunciature for a meeting with the country’s prime minister.

In the afternoon, Pope Francis will drive three and a half miles to the Our Lady of the Congo Cathedral, which was built in 1947 and is inspired by the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s, when the country was under Belgian colonial rule. There, in a liturgical ceremony, he will pray with and address priests, deacons, consecrated women and men, and seminarians. The Democratic Republic of Congo has 12,152 priests, 4 deacons, over 12,000 consecrated men and women and 3000 seminarians.

That evening, he will meet with the country’s Jesuit community at the nunciature.

On the morning of Feb. 3, Pope Francis will meet the bishops who govern the country’s 48 dioceses. He will meet them at the headquarters of the national bishops’ conference before driving to the airport, where the country’s president will bid him farewell as he takes the plane for the 3 hour and 20 minute flight to South Sudan, which shares a border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

South Sudan

Francis is the first pope to come to South Sudan, the youngest country in the world, and the 60th country he will have visited as pope.

South Sudan has an estimated population of 13 million, more than 2 millions of whom are internally displaced, and another 330,000 refugees mostly from neighboring Sudan. There are two main ethnic groups: the Dinka (36 percent of the population) and the Nuer (16 percent). According to Vatican statistics, Catholics count for 52 percent of the population, 33 percent are followers of traditional religion, and 6 percent are Muslim.

Although South Sudan has significant oil deposits and much arable land, today most of the population live in poverty and experience food insecurity caused by lack of proper government, communal and inter-ethnic fighting, and vast flooding.

Pope Francis is coming on an ecumenical visit for peace, the motto of which is, “I pray that all may be one.” On his arrival at Juba International Airport at 3 p.m local time, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury; Iain Greenshields, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and Archbishop Hubertus van Megen, the nuncio, will board the plane to greet him.

When he disembarks from the plane, South Sudan’s President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, will give him an official state welcome. After that, they will all drive to the presidential palace in Juba, the capital city situated on the banks of the White Nile with a population of just over half a million people. After a private conversation with the president, Francis will greet the country’s vice presidents before going to the palace gardens to address an audience of 250 people representing the country’s political and religious authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps.

Although South Sudan has significant oil deposits and much arable land, today most of the population live in poverty.

In the first of his five talks in this country that has continued to suffer from conflict and violence ever since it became an independent state in 2011, Francis is expected to remind the political leaders of the commitment they gave in Rome, in April 2019, to work together to implement the 2018 peace agreement. He then kissed their feet, begging them to do so. He cannot do that now due to his mobility problems, but his presence in a wheelchair will itself be a powerful message to spur them to work for the common good, not particular group interests.

After this encounter, he will retire to the nunciature where he will reside during his stay in Juba.

On Feb. 5, Francis will drive to the nearby Cathedral of St. Teresa to meet and address the bishops of South Sudan and Sudan (which form one episcopal conference), and representatives of South Sudan’s 300 priests, 7 deacons, 250 consecrated women and men, and 189 seminarians.

Afterwards, he will greet and talk with members of the Jesuit community at the nunciature.

In the afternoon, Pope Francis, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland will meet with approximately 2,000 of the country’s internally displaced people at Freedom Hall. They will hear testimonies from three of them. The archbishop and the moderator will recite prayers, and the pope will give a talk.

When that meeting ends, the ecumenical leaders will go to the nearby John Garang Mausoleum. John Garang is recognized as the father of the nation; he led the liberation movement of the Sudanese people from 1983 to 2005 when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that led to the independence of South Sudan was signed. Soon after, however, he died in a helicopter accident and is buried in a tomb in the mausoleum. President Salva Kiir proclaimed the country’s independence here on his tomb on July 9, 2011.

The ecumenical prayer for peace will take place beside the Mausoleum. It will be opened by the president of the South Sudan Council of Churches. After Gospel readings, the archbishop will speak, the moderator will introduce the liturgy, and Pope Francis will deliver an important speech that is expected to implore the country’s political leaders to give their all for peace. The three religious leaders will conclude the service by imparting their blessing together.

On Feb, 5, Pope Francis will celebrate an open-air Mass near the mausoleum, which hundreds of thousands of people are expected to attend. After Mass, he will travel to the airport where President Kiir will bid him farewell before he takes the plane back to Rome, together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. The three religious leaders are expected to give a joint press conference during the 6 hour and 45 minute return flight. The plane is scheduled to touch down at Rome airport at 5:15 p.m. local time.

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