Congo, a continent in the great African Continent
At 8:10 a.m. on January 31, 2023, the papal flight took off from Fiumicino airport for N’djili International Airport in Kinshasa, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it landed around 3 p.m., and the pope was welcomed by the prime minister. Pope Francis then proceeded to the Palais de la Nation, located in La Gombe, north of Kinshasa, on the banks of the Congo River, which is the official residence of the president of the republic.
It was here, in the Great Hall of Congress, that the Belgian Parliament, in the presence of King Baudouin, proclaimed Congo’s independence on June 30, 1960. The pope was welcomed by President Felix Tshisekedi Tshilombo, also known as “Fatshi,” and together they went to the Salle Présidentielle, where a private meeting took place. Then they went to the garden of the Palais de la Nation, where political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps, businesspeople, and representatives of civil society and culture were present, about 1,000 people in all. Here the president and the pope delivered speeches.
Francis spoke of Congo as “a continent in the great African Continent,” a “green lung” with a geography “so rich and varied.” But history has not been as generous: “Torn by war, the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to witness within its confines conflicts and forced migrations, and is suffering from terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity and of creation.” The pope now comes “as a pilgrim of reconciliation and peace.” He compared the earth to a diamond that must recover the dignity of its beauty; economic and enslaving colonialism has made its diamonds bloody. “May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny!” he said to applause. “May the world acknowledge the catastrophic things that were done over the centuries to the detriment of the local peoples, and not forget this country and this continent,” he continued, urging “a diplomacy where peoples are concerned for other peoples, for a diplomacy centered not on control over land and resources, expansionism and increased profits, but rather on providing opportunities for people to grow and develop.” He also declared, “In the case of this people, one has the impression that the international community has practically resigned itself to the violence devouring it. We cannot grow accustomed to the blood.” It was a tough speech, enthusiastically received.
Another remarkable aspect of the pope’s address to the authorities consists in the fact that the beauty of the diamond “also comes from its shape, from numerous harmoniously arranged faces.” He went on to assert that the country’s pluralism “has a multifaceted character. It is a wealth that must be guarded, avoiding slipping into tribalism and conflict. Stubbornly siding with one’s ethnicity or special interests, feeding spirals of hatred and violence, comes back to the disadvantage of all, as it obstructs the necessary ‘chemistry of the whole’.”
Afterward, the pope headed to the apostolic nunciature, where he arrived around 6 p.m.
‘A Great Amnesty of the Heart’
At 8:15 a.m. on February 1, Francis went to the airport in Ndolo, a secondary airport located in the municipality of Barumbu, in the northern part of the city, on the banks of the Funa River. Here at 9:30 a.m. he celebrated Mass in French and Lingala according to the Roman Missal for the dioceses of Zaire. More than a million people were present. French, Tshiluba, Lingala, Swahili and Kikongo languages were used for the prayers of the faithful. Thus Francis met with the Congolese Catholic Church, which continues to be among the most fruitful in Africa. This is evidenced by the growth of the faithful, who represent about 33 percent of the 90 percent Christian population (with 22 percent Protestants and 19 percent Pentecostals and Evangelicals).
The Church can count on more than 4,000 diocesan priests, many of whom are fidei donum, missionaries in Africa, Europe and America. To these should be added more than 11,000 religious men and women, engaged in various areas of pastoral care. The activism of the laity is also great, as evidenced by the presence of numerous lay associations and movements united in the Council of the Catholic Apostolate of the Laity. There are numerous catechists who help animate communities, as well as lay people engaged in witnessing to the faith in the political, economic and cultural fields. Thanks to their collaboration, the Congolese Church is alive, dynamic and missionary. It is also a major social actor, and is in fact the leading partner of the state in the fields of education and health, making up for the lack of public services through its significant network of hospitals, social centers and schools of all levels, which are highly regarded for the quality of teaching provided.
In recent years the bishops have made repeated calls for peace in the east of the country, along with denunciations of the presence of foreign powers and challenging powerful interests seeking to exploit its extraordinary mineral wealth. The sufferings of the Congolese people have been a constant focus of Pope Francis’ concern. In his homily at Mass he asked: “how can we safeguard and cultivate the peace of Jesus?” He pointed to three sources of peace: forgiveness, community and mission. Jesus shows his wounds, “because forgiveness is born from wounds. It is born when our wounds do not leave scars of hatred, but become the means by which we make room for others and accept their weaknesses” The challenge is that we have “the courage to grant others a great amnesty of the heart.” The mission is also “to believe that we Christians are called to cooperate with everyone, to break the cycle of violence, to dismantle the machinations of hatred.”
In the afternoon, at 4:30 p.m., a meeting between the pope and victims of violence in the east of the country took place at the Apostolic Nunciature. After a song and the projection of a video came testimonies of victims from Butembo-Beni, Goma, Bunia, Bukavu and Uvira. The words of the witnesses were shocking. They recounted their personal experience of heinous violence, true horror stories. The pope, visibly moved, greeted and blessed each witness. He then delivered a speech, in which among other things he said: “Hearing of the inhumane violence that you have seen with your eyes and personally experienced we can only weep in silence, for we are left without words.” In particular, Francis addressed the people in the east of the country, a place of bloody conflicts. It is in the name of God that “I condemn the armed violence, the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and occupation of villages, and the looting of property and cattle that continues to be perpetrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There is, as well, the murderous, illegal exploitation of the wealth of this country, and the attempts to fragment the country in order to control it,” he thundered.
The pope lamented that the international media are silent about these crimes. The victims all expressed words of forgiveness and reconciliation, reciting an act of commitment and laying at the foot of a cross weapons similar to those with which they or their family members were assaulted: machetes, hammers, axes and knives. “As I bow in respect before the suffering endured by so many, I would like to ask everyone to behave as you, our courageous witnesses, have done and have the courage to disarm the heart,” the pontiff said.
War is “unleashed by an insatiable greed for raw materials and money that fuels a weaponized economy and causes instability and corruption.” Francis pronounced a loud and clear “no” to violence and a “no” to passivity, then a loud and clear “yes” to reconciliation and a “yes” to hope. Reconciliation is fundamental above all for the future, for the generations that will follow: “A new future will come about if we see others, whether Tutsi or Hutu, no longer as adversaries or enemies, but as brothers and sisters, and if we believe that in their hearts, however hidden, they cherish the same desire for peace.”
Also in the Nunciature, at 6:30 p.m., there was a meeting with representatives of some charities. After a brief presentation by them, the pope gave a speech: “In this country, where the sound of violence is heard like the loud crash of a felled tree, you are the forest that quietly grows each day and makes the air clean and breathable,” he said, highlighting that “What causes poverty is not so much the absence of goods and opportunities, but their unequal distribution.”
Francis referred to a charity that is exemplary, forward-looking and capable of networking. There is a need to look ahead, to the future, which, in addition to responding to immediate needs, creates works that are “sustainable and lasting.” In this sense, more important than distributing goods is “transmitting knowledge and the tools that make development autonomous and sustainable.”
Staying open to the anxieties of our time
At 8:50 a.m. on February 2, the pope went to the “Stadium of the Martyrs,” located in Lingwala, Kinshasa. At 9:30 a.m. he met with youth and catechists. After a tour in the popemobile, he was welcomed by the president of the Bishops’ Commission for the Laity with an address of greeting. Some 70,000 young people were in attendance, celebrating and determined to send messages against social and political corruption with their songs. The testimonies of a young man and a catechist followed. The young man asked the pope to “Insist to the leaders of the world that they really take care of young people!” Francis gave a speech and proposed an exercise: “Now I would like to ask you, for a little while, not to look at me but to look at your hands. Open the palms of your hands. Look at them closely. Dear friends, God has placed the gift of life, the future of society and the future of this great country in those hands of yours.” Referring to the individual fingers that make up a hand, the pope spoke of prayer, “the water of the soul” and “a force for peace”; community, which drives away the dangers of loneliness and addictions to occultism, witchcraft, revenge and anger; honesty, avoiding the manipulation that uses people to maintain the spiral of violence and instability; forgiveness, “because to forgive is to know how to begin again”; and service, which, according to Jesus “is the power that transforms the world.” The pope interacted with the young people during his speech, urging them to hold hands as a gesture to feel like one Church, one people, and also to shout, “No to corruption!”
At 11 a.m., in the apostolic nunciature’s reception hall, the pope greeted Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge, with family members. He then met with 38 students from Congolese Catholic universities.
In the afternoon, he went to Notre Dame du Congo Cathedral at 4:30 p.m. The building dates back to 1947, when the country was still a Belgian colony. The imposing brick building is inspired by the Art Deco architecture of the 1930s. A prayer meeting was held in the cathedral with priests, deacons, consecrated men and women, and seminarians.
After an address of welcome by Cardinal Archbishop Fridolin Ambongo Besungu of Kinshasa, and testimonies by a priest, a nun and a seminarian, a Gospel passage (Luke 2:22-40) was read. Then the pope delivered an address, “Dear priests and deacons, consecrated men and women, seminarians: through you, the Lord also wants to anoint his people today with the balm of consolation and hope. You are called to echo this promise of God, to remind others that he made us and we belong to Him.” The priesthood and consecrated life are “not a profession to earn money or gain a social position, nor even to settle one’s family of origin, but it is the mission to be signs of Christ’s presence.”
Francis also spoke of temptations to be overcome: spiritual mediocrity, worldly comfort and superficiality. And he recommended closeness and consolation. “People,” he said, “do not need official exponents of the sacred or graduates detached from the people. We are obliged to enter into the heart of the Christian mystery, to deepen its doctrine, to study and meditate on the Word of God; and at the same time to remain open to the anxieties of our time, to the increasingly complex questions of our age, in order to be able to understand people’s lives and needs, to understand how to take them by the hand and accompany them.”
After leaving the cathedral, the pope returned to the nunciature, where at 6:30 p.m. he received the Jesuits living in the country.
A Church present in the history of the people
On February 3, at 8:30 a.m., the pope met with the bishops of the Congo National Bishops’ Conference (CENCO), which brings together the prelates of the 48 ecclesiastical districts. He addressed the country’s pastors thus: “I imagine the African Church and I see this Congolese Church as a young, dynamic and joyful Church, motivated by missionary zeal, by the good news that God loves us and that Jesus is Lord. Yours is a Church present in the lived history of this people.” The young, bright and beautiful face of this Church is furrowed by pain and fatigue, it is “the face of a Church that suffers for its people, a heart in which the life of the people, with its joys and trials, beats anxiously,” and it wants to take upon itself the material and spiritual wounds of the people.
In this situation, episcopal ministry must be exercised with a closeness to God and a prophetic hope for the people, “awakening consciences, denouncing evil and encouraging those who are broken-hearted and lacking hope.” Francis cited the testimony of Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa, the Jesuit archbishop of Bukavu who was assassinated on October 29, 1996, by Rwandan militias allied with President Laurent-Désiré Kabila due to his commitment to refugees and his denunciation of injustices and war projects in the Great Lakes region.
After the meeting, the pope headed to N’djili airport for the farewell ceremony. At 10:40 a.m. the plane took off for Juba, where it landed after a flight of about three and a half hours, at 3 p.m. local time.
The Church in South Sudan
The history of Christianity in South Sudan is connected to that of Sudan, of which the young African state was a part until 2011. Today more than half of the South Sudanese population is of the Christian faith, with a predominance of Catholics, who account for 52 percent of the Christian population, followed by Anglicans, Presbyterians and other Protestant denominations. There is also a substantial number of followers of traditional African religions.
With the independence of South Sudan, the Catholic Church and other Churches have been able to reorganize and exercise more freedom in their pastoral activities. The constitution explicitly recognizes equality among religious denominations and freedom of worship. In recent years, bishops, missionaries and other Christian leaders have never ceased to denounce the dramatic humanitarian situation caused by war and hunger, and countless appeals have been made to the warring parties and the international community to secure peace and reconciliation. These include one launched in July 2017 by Bishop Edward Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC), which consists of all archbishops and bishops of both South Sudan and Sudan, in his message released on the occasion of the sixth anniversary of independence.
The Christian community’s commitment to reconciliation is manifested at various levels. One is that of mediation, in which local Churches have been involved since the early years of the new state. In 2013, President Salva Kiir called Bishop Paride Taban, Emeritus of Torit, and Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul to lead a new committee charged with promoting the national reconciliation process. Pope Francis has expressed his concern for the tormented South Sudanese people, making repeated appeals for peace in recent years, promoting various initiatives for South Sudan.
‘No more spilled blood, no more conflict!’
The plane stopped at the ceremonial apron, and the apostolic nuncio, the chief of protocol, the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland boarded the plane to greet the pope.
The pontiff was greeted at the foot of the plane by President Salva Kiir Mayardit, and two children in traditional dress offered him flowers. From the airport they headed to the presidential palace, State House J1. After South Sudan’s independence in 2011, the Palace was renovated and acquired its current appearance. At 3:45 p.m. Francis was welcomed, along with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, by the president of the republic at the entrance, where they posed for a photo. Francis signed the Book of Honor. Afterward, the pope and the head of state went to the president’s study, where a private meeting took place; the two then proceeded to a meeting with those present in the adjacent board room.
Subsequently, the group went to the palace garden, where political and religious authorities, the diplomatic corps and representatives of civil society were present, about 250 people in all. Here the president gave a speech, in which he said, referring to the Agreement signed in 2018 for peace, “In honor of the Holy Father Pope Francis’ historic visit to our country and our declaration of 2023 as the year of peace and reconciliation, I officially announce the lifting of the suspension of the Rome peace talks.” He also expressed hope that “my brothers in the Opposition Group who did not sign the agreement will reciprocate this gesture and honestly engage with us to achieve an inclusive peace in our country.”
The pope’s address then followed. “I come as a pilgrim of reconciliation,” he said, “in the hope of accompanying you on your journey of peace. It is a circuitous journey, yet one that can no longer be postponed. Nor am I here by myself, for in peace as in life, we all journey together. So I have come with two brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, whom I thank for all that they will say to us. […]. Together, stretching out our hands, we present ourselves to you and to this people in the name of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace.” The pope took up “the cry of an entire people,” after years of war and which seemed to know no end. Using the image of the Nile River flowing through the country, he called on the authorities to be “the springs that water the life of the community, the fathers and mothers of this young country. You are called to renew the life of society as pure sources of prosperity and peace, so greatly needed for the sons and daughters of South Sudan. They need fathers, not overlords; they need steady steps toward development, not constant collapses.”
The pope’s tone became stern, repeating several times the call of Christ, when in Gethsemane, faced with one of his disciples who had drawn his sword, he said, in effect, “Enough!” And Francis exclaimed, “Dear President and Vice-Presidents, in the name of God, of the God to whom we prayed together in Rome, of the God who is gentle and humble in heart (cf. Matt 11:29), the God in whom so many people of this beloved country believe, 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!”
July 9, 2011, South Sudan became a republic, “and for the life of a republic, democratic development is necessary, which presupposes that ‘without justice there is no peace, and without freedom there is no justice’.” “Let us understand each other and move forward with the Peace Accord, as well as the Road Map!” begged Francis. This was followed by speeches from the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
‘United with each other as one family’
At 9 a.m. on February 4, the pope went to St. Theresa’s Cathedral, (Juba Cathedral), located on Unity Avenue in Bahr al Jabal, Kotor District, the construction of which began in 1952. Here the pope had a meeting with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated men and women and seminarians. After a greeting from the president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Yunan Tombe Trille Kuku Andali of El Obeid, there were two testimonies: that of a priest, who highlighted the harmful effects of a “prolonged civil war” and the “unwillingness of our political leaders to work together for peace,” and the dramatic testimony of a nun who spoke of two of her sisters who had been killed.
Then the pope addressed those present. He recalled the people praying as the psalmist did: “Along the rivers of Babylon, there we sat and wept” (Psalm 137:1). “Indeed, the waters of that great river collect the sighs and sufferings of your communities; they collect the pain of so many shattered lives, they collect the tragedy of a people in flight, the sorrow and fear in the hearts and eyes of so many women and children.” He invited everyone to ask themselves what it means to be ministers of God in a history shot through with war, hatred, violence and poverty. He presented Moses as a model, emphasizing his docility to God’s initiative and his work of intercession. Moses “ascends and descends from the mountain of God’s presence in order to intercede for the people, that is, to put himself inside their history to bring them closer to God. It is a coming down in order to put oneself in the midst of the people, to walk in the midst of their sufferings and tears, in the midst of their brothers’ and sisters’ hunger for God and thirst for love. Our first duty, then, “is not to be a Church that is perfectly organized – any company can do this – but a Church that, in the name of Christ, stands in the midst of people’s troubled lives, a Church that is willing to dirty its hands for people.”
Then Francis returned to the nunciature, where at 11 a.m. he met privately with the Jesuits present in the country. In the afternoon, at 4:30 p.m. he went to Freedom Hall, which was built in 2011, after the country’s independence, and can accommodate about 2,000 people. Here the meeting with internally displaced persons took place. In 2013, large-scale conflict and violence across the country prompted people to flee their homes in search of safety. Many found shelter near bases of UNMISS, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan. In several locations around the country, including Juba, Melut, Wau, Bor, Bentiu, and Malakal, the Mission has been sheltering people in sites to protect civilians. As of January 2022, there were about 33,000 people in IDP camps in Juba.
After an opening song, the moderator of the Church of Scotland offered a prayer. Then the groups in the hall were introduced, and a video projection took place, with commentary by Sara Beysolow Nyanti, deputy special representative of the secretary-general in the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, resident and humanitarian coordinator for South Sudan. This was followed by three poignant testimonies from boys from Camps Bentiu, Malakal and Juba, and after a song, again the testimony of a girl from Camp Juba. Then the archbishop of Canterbury offered his prayer.
Then the Holy Father delivered his address, in which he highlighted that “great numbers of children born in recent years have known only the reality of camps for displaced persons. They have no memory of what it means to have a home; they are losing their connection with their native land, their roots and their traditions.” But the future cannot be in IDP camps. “There is a need for you to grow as an open society, for different groups to mingle and to form a single people by embracing the challenges of integration, even learning the languages spoken throughout the country and not just those in your particular ethnic group. This means embracing the marvelous risk of knowing and accepting those who are different, discovering the beauty of a reconciled fraternity and experiencing the thrilling challenge of freely shaping your own future along with that of the entire community.”
“Yes,” Francis continued, “you will be the trees that absorb the pollution of years of violence and restore the oxygen of fraternity. True, right now you are ‘planted’ where you don’t want to be, but precisely from this situation of hardship and uncertainty, you can reach out to those around you and experience that you all are rooted in the one human family. From here, you must make a new start, to realize that you are all brothers and sisters, children on earth of God in heaven, the Father of us all.” At the end, the three religious leaders gave blessings to those present.
At 5:30 p.m. the pope went to the John Garang Mausoleum, where an ecumenical prayer took place. After the Gospel reading, the archbishop of Canterbury gave an address, “Being a Christian brings everyone into the communion of believers. It doesn’t matter if we come from different countries, different denominations, different tribes.” He emphasized that with this event in Juba the pope, the moderator and he have “embarked on this Pilgrimage of Peace as it has never been done before, ever.” The moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland introduced the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. Then a prayer of intercession and mercy for the nation was said in several voices, one for each of the country’s seven main Christian denominations.
Then the pope gave a speech, “We cannot promote peace without first invoking Jesus, ‘Prince of Peace’.” The peace of the Holy Spirit “harmonizes differences, while the spirit that is the enemy of God and man leverages diversity to divide.” Recalling once again the figure of Moses interceding for the people, he asked pastors of the different Christian denominations to feel “united among themselves, as one family,” “charged to pray for all.” But it is also necessary to be “peacemakers,” knowing that God’s peace is “not just a truce between conflicts, but a fraternal communion, which comes from joining, not absorbing; from forgiving, not overpowering; from reconciling, not imposing.” Thus the Gospel will not remain “just a beautiful religious discourse, but a prophecy that becomes a reality in history.” The prayer was concluded with the blessing given by the three religious leaders.
On Sunday, February 5, at 8:15 a.m., the pope arrived at the John Garang Mausoleum for the celebration of Mass, which was attended by about 100,000 faithful. Francis delivered a homily in which he commented on the Gospel words “You are the salt of the earth” and “You are the light of the world.” Salt is the wisdom of the disciple, which gives flavor to the earth we inhabit; a pinch of it is enough to give flavor and change history. Jesus’ invitation to be the light of the world is clear: we who are his disciples are called to shine “like a lamp whose flame may never be extinguished. In other words, before we worry about the darkness surrounding us, before we hope that the shadows around us will lighten, we are called to radiate light, to give brightness to our cities, our villages and homes.”
The prayer of the faithful was recited in Arabic, Dinka, Bari, Nuer and Zande. At the end, Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba, greeted the pope. Then Francis recited the Angelus, premising some words of thanks and greetings and leaving a clear message: “Hope is the word I would like to leave to each of you, as a gift to be shared, as a seed that bears fruit.”
At the end of the Mass, the pope headed to the international airport. At 11:45 a.m. he took off for Rome’s Fiumicino airport, where he landed at 5:00 p.m.
* * *
His 40th apostolic journey was one Pope Francis strongly desired. The need to postpone it by a year for knee-related health reasons increased his desire to make it. It was a journey to the heart of Africa, but also to a “periphery” in which the “culture of waste” has produced the negative consequences of economic colonialism and infighting that have bloodied both the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. It was a trip with a high ecumenical focus, with Christians united, not arguing but delivering a strong common Gospel message for peace and justice.
He repeatedly resounded the call for “Africa to be the protagonist of its own destiny,” and the repeated cry “Enough!” continues to echo: Enough to the bloodshed, conflicts, violence, mutual accusations and destruction. The pope was blunt in his denunciation of political responsibility, corruption, the apathy of the international community, and the media’s silence on ongoing conflicts. With his visit Francis wanted to turn the spotlight on a land rich in resources and humanity, in which the Church, young and dynamic, is called to engage by countering all “worldliness.” In this sense, the pope’s trip was – as his trips often are – both dramatic and prophetic. He took up the cry of the earth and relaunched with hope the commitment to the future.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 7, no.3 art. 9, 0323: 10.32009/22072446.0323.9
. On the political and economic situation in Congo and South Sudan, see J.-P. Bodjoko, “The Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. Two countries, many facets” in Civ. Catt. En, February 2023. See also C. Mukoso, “Crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, ibid., July 2021; H.-H. Kibangou, “Hopes for South Sudan’s Government of National Unity”, ibid., September 2020.
. On February 16, 1963, with the brief Pontificias Legationes, John XXIII established the Apostolic Nunciature in Congo, which in 1977 assumed the name Zaire, and in 1997 the Democratic Republic of Congo.
. The Church of the Democratic Republic of Congo is among the oldest in the sub-Saharan region. It was first evangelized by Portuguese missionaries in the late 15th century, when the Kongo king, Nzinga Nkuwu, was baptized (May 3, 1491) and Christianity became the official religion of the kingdom. Catholicism was firmly established during Belgian colonial rule (1877-1960). The arrival of the White Fathers, Scheut Missionaries and the first nuns dates from this period. In 1954 the first University of the Congo, the Jesuits’ “Lovanium” University, was inaugurated in Léopoldville (Kinshasa). In 1956 came the consecration of the first Congolese bishop, Pierre Kimbondo, followed in 1959 by the appointment of the first native archbishop of Léopoldville, Joseph Malula, who later became the country’s first cardinal. Church-state relations began to sour during the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who proceeded in successive stages to nationalize universities, including the Catholic University of Lovanium, abolish Christmas as a public holiday, nationalize Catholic schools, and ban religious symbols in public buildings. The bishops were persistent in making their voices heard even after the end of Mobutu to denounce violence and abuse of power, and especially speak in defense of the people victimized by the conflicts that have continued to fill the country with violence.
. We recall in particular the special Prayer Vigil for Peace in Congo and South Sudan, presided over by the pope in St. Peter’s Basilica on November 23, 2017, and the Day of Prayer, convened on February 23, 2018, after the postponement, for security reasons, of his trip to South Sudan together with the British Anglican Primate, Justin Welby.
. The young people, who came from various parts of the country and were accompanied by the Jesuit provincial, Fr. Rigobert Kyungu, and Fr. Toussaint Kafarhire Murhula, were representatives of those who had been able to converse with the pope on November 1st at the Building Bridges Across Africa synod meeting, held online and promoted together with the Pontifical Commission for Latin America.
. Cf., Pope Francis’ conversation with Jesuits in the Congo.
. Its current president is Archbishop Marcel Utembi Tapa of Kisangani, and the vice president is Bishop Jose Moko Ekanga of Idiofa, while the secretary general is Fr. Donatien N’shole. CENCO is a member of the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
. Cf. G. Marchesi, “Christophe Munzihirwa, il vescovo congolese martire della carità”, in Civ. Catt. 2005 IV 275-284.
. The first evangelization of this territory dates back to the 6th century, by Byzantine clergy. The Church then developed, with bishops later coming under the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. The collapse of the Christian Kingdom of Nubia in the early 14th century was followed by the almost complete disappearance of Christianity; only a few Franciscan communities remained in the region. Around the middle of the 19th century, new western mission attempts at evangelization began, but these failed due to malaria and difficult climatic conditions. Finally, attempts undertaken by the Combonian Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus and the Pious Missionary Sisters Mothers of Nigrizia would be crowned with success, albeit amid countless difficulties, thanks to the tenacity of their founder, St. Daniele Comboni (1831-81), to whom we owe the birth of the local Church. Thanks in part to their work, between 1901 and 1964 Christianity experienced tremendous growth in the country, helping to strengthen the identity of the South Sudanese in relation to the Arab and Muslim population of the North. Their opposition to attempts to Islamize the South, promoted by the government in Khartoum after Sudan’s independence from Anglo-Egyptian rule (accompanied by strong hostility toward the missionaries), fueled the secessionist drives that were at the root of the two bloody civil wars (1955-72 and 1983-2005) that resulted in South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
. In these mediation processes, the Sudanese Churches have been actively supported by Churches around the world. One need only think of the so-called “Rome Initiative,” the parallel peace process promoted since 2020 by the Community of Sant’Egidio to also bring to the negotiating table opposition movements that are not signatories to the revitalized 2018 Peace Accord. Another area in which the Sudanese Churches are engaged at the forefront is humanitarian assistance to the approximately two million internally displaced persons who have fled the violence in recent years. In addition to the local Church, several foreign Catholic charitable organizations are involved in this initiative.
. Of particular note is the spiritual retreat sponsored at the Vatican on April 10, 2019, with the two rival South Sudanese leaders: a meeting where the image of the pontiff kissing their feet remains etched in memory. On July 9, 2021, Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and the then moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, Jim Wallace, wrote a joint message to the South Sudanese leaders, reaffirming the need for “greater efforts” so that the people of South Sudan could “fully enjoy the fruits of independence.” The message also confirmed their intention to visit South Sudan as soon as conditions would allow. Finally, it is worth mentioning the initiative, launched in the summer of 2017, “The Pope for South Sudan,” an economic contribution of about half a million dollars to support interventions in the fields of health, education and agriculture, by which Francis wanted to practically express charity and closeness to the people of the African nation.
. At the same time, in the adjacent Board Room, the vice-presidents of the republic – Riek Machar Teny Dhurgo (SPLM-IO), James Wani Igga (SPLM), Taban Deng Gai (SPLM-IO), Rebecca Nyandeng Garang De Mabior, wife of John Garang, and Hussein Abdelbagi (South Sudan Opposition Alliance) – met together with the Cardinal Secretary of State, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, the Deputy Secretary of State, the Secretary for Relations with States and International Organizations, the Apostolic Nuncio, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
. The Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference (SCBC) brings together the bishops of both states, which have one metropolitan archdiocese with six suffragan dioceses (South Sudan) and one metropolitan archdiocese and one suffragan diocese (Sudan), respectively. After South Sudan’s independence in 2011, however, two secretariats were established, one in Juba, South Sudan, and one in Khartoum, Sudan, “to implement the pastoral work of the bishops of each nation.” Its current president is Bishop Yunan Tombe Trille Kuku Andali of El Obeid, Sudan. SCBC is a member of the Association of East African Bishops’ Conferences (AMECEA) and the Symposium of Episcopal Conferences of Africa and Madagascar (SECAM).
. Cf., Pope Francis’ conversation with Jesuits in South Sudan.
. The Mausoleum is the burial place of Dr. John Garang de Mabior, who led Sudan’s army and People’s Liberation Movement from 1983 to 2005, when the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) was signed, which led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011. It was at Garang’s grave that Salva Kiir Mayardit proclaimed the country’s independence on July 9, 2011.