Pope Francis will effective today embark on a week-long trip to the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan centered on the theme “All Reconciled in Jesus Christ.” The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will later join the pontiff.
The aim of their trip is to mediate peace in areas plagued by violence, ethnic conflict, poverty, and humanitarian crisis, causing millions to seek refuge, suffer from hunger, and live in camps with little hope for improvement. This trip marks Pope Francis’s fifth visit to Africa, with a focus on promoting peace and reconciliation.
The Roman Pontiff intends to offer comfort to those impacted by violence and stress the importance of each individual contributing to peace in their personal relationships, communities, and nations. The trip was previously planned for July 2022 but was postponed due to Pope Francis’s knee injury.
“…These lands have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation. South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship,” the pope said after his Angelus address Sunday prior to what is now going to be his 40th apostolic journey.
A preliminary itinerary indicates that Pope Francis will arrive at N’djili International Airport in Kinshasa on Tuesday afternoon. President Félix Tshisekedi will later receive the pope at the National Palace. As per the Holy See press office, Pope Francis will spend four days (from January 31st to February 3rd) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which boasts nearly 50 million Catholics.
During his stay, he will be based in the capital Kinshasa and meet with government officials, victims of conflict from the east, and local church leaders. The initial plan included a visit to Goma in the eastern DRC, but this was canceled due to the ongoing conflict between Congolese forces and the M23 rebels.
Recent tensions and allegations of Rwanda supporting the rebels have further destabilized the region. Pope Francis’s visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan is significant due to the ongoing violence in both countries and also historic. He will be the first pope to visit the DRC in 40 years, following Pope John Paul II’s visits in 1980 and 1985. Moreover, he will be the first-ever pope to visit South Sudan, which gained independence in 2011.
Statistics reveal that approximately 20 percent of the world’s Catholics live in Africa, with the number increasing rapidly in one of the world’s youngest regions, where the youth make up the majority of the population. This makes Africa a crucial destination for promoting peace and stability and the future of the Church itself, according to international relations experts.
On February 2, Pope Francis is expected to engage with young people and catechists at the Martyrs’ Stadium, the largest stadium in the DRC, and then proceed to the Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral for a prayer meeting with priests, deacons, consecrated persons, and seminarians. He will conclude the day with a private meeting with members of the Society of Jesus and also meet with the bishops before his departure.
From DRC, Pope Francis will join Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields to embark on an unprecedented trip, dubbed the Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace, in South Sudan from February 4th to 5th to “promote healing and unity in the troubled world’s youngest nation.”
In a statement, Archbishop Welby, who is also the Primate of the Anglican Communion, expressed his profound gratitude and explained that they are making their Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace “as servants” to amplify the cries of the South Sudanese people, who continue to suffer from conflict, flooding, and famine.
The English Primate noted the intensification of violence in South Sudan over the past three years, including since July 2022, and expressed hope to reassess and reinvigorate the commitments made by South Sudanese leaders at a spiritual retreat held at the Vatican in 2019 and to their people since then.
“We come as brothers in Christ to worship together and witness to the God who reconciles us. The communities of South Sudan have a legacy of a powerful witness to their faith. Through working together, they have been a sign and instrument of the reconciliation God desires for their whole country and all of creation. We hope to build on and re-energize that legacy,” the statement reads in part.
During the visit, the three religious leaders will engage in joint public events in Juba, including meetings with various religious and civic groups, including Internally Displaced Persons. On the final day, Archbishop Welby will lead a worship service at All Saints Anglican Cathedral in Juba, while Pope Francis will celebrate a public Mass for South Sudanese Catholics before returning to Rome.
For Roman Catholics, this trip will mark the 20th papal visit to Africa and Pope Francis’ fifth time on the continent, following previous visits to Kenya, Uganda, and Central African Republic in 2015, Egypt in 2017, and trips to Morocco and Mozambique, Madagascar, and Mauritius in 2019.