Pope Francis embarks on a historic journey this week to two African nations that have long been plagued by conflicts, leaving millions of refugees and internally displaced individuals grappling with hunger and poverty. The trip, slated for January 31st to February 5th, will take the Pope to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, where Catholics comprise a significant portion of the population, and the Church plays a crucial role in healthcare, education, and democracy-building initiatives.
The 86-year-old Pope was originally scheduled to make this trip last July, but it was postponed due to a flare-up of his chronic knee ailment. Although he still requires a wheelchair and cane, he has made a significant recovery, making this visit possible. Both nations are rich in natural resources, with DRC abundant in minerals and South Sudan in oil, yet they remain beset by poverty and strife.
Pope Francis’ visit to DRC marks the first time since Pope John Paul II visited in 1985, when the country was known as Zaire. The Pope’s itinerary has been adjusted due to security concerns, as he was originally slated to visit the eastern city of Goma, but had to scrap that stop following a resurgence of fighting between the army and the M23 rebel group in the area. The Pope will now spend his time in Kinshasa, where he will meet with victims of violence from the east.
This trip takes on a unique and unprecedented nature when Pope Francis leaves Kinshasa for South Sudan’s capital, Juba, on Friday, accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields. The three religious leaders, representing the three major Christian denominations, will embark on an ecumenical journey of peace, seeking to promote unity and reconciliation in the world’s youngest country, which gained independence from predominantly Muslim Sudan in 2011 and has a population of around 11 million.
In his Sunday address, Pope Francis told a gathering of tens of thousands of people in St. Peter’s Square, “Together, as brothers, we will live an ecumenical journey of peace.” This trip offers a powerful symbol of hope for the people of DRC and South Sudan, who have suffered greatly from prolonged conflicts and a lack of international attention. The Pope’s visit brings the light of faith, hope, and love to these forgotten nations, and serves as a reminder that all individuals, regardless of their race, religion, or circumstances, are deserving of dignity and peace.