International News

Papal Visit Brought Much-Needed Lift to Suffering African Nations

Pope Francis watches dancers perform during a meeting with young people and catechists in Martyrs’ Stadium in Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 2. (Photo: Catholic News Service)

by Elise Ann Allen, Special to The Tablet 

ROME — As Pope Francis is back in Rome and his fifth trip to Africa is now in the rearview mirror, there is much talk about what impact his visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan will have and whether any real change will result. 

Both countries are majority Christian nations and have long suffered the effects of drawn-out war that has left millions dead. 

In Congo, fighting has endured for the past 30 years, tearing the country’s eastern regions apart and complicating relations with regional neighbors, whereas South Sudan has experienced violent conflict for nearly the entirety of its existence after declaring independence in 2011, and the implementation of a much-celebrated 2018 peace agreement has repeatedly been delayed. 

Pope Francis wrapped up a Jan. 31-Feb. 5 visit to Africa, stopping first in Kinshasa, Congo, and then Juba, South Sudan. 

Throughout his visit, Pope Francis was bold and direct in calling out corruption and the exploitation of the African continent, specifically the mineral-rich Congo, as well as ethnic and tribal disputes that continue to compound the violence being unleashed by rebel and militant groups. 

In a bold opening speech in Kinshasa, the pope told wealthy global elites to “stop choking Africa,” saying the continent “is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered,” and condemned the “economic colonialism” that keeps the nation poor while using its resources to line the pockets of wealthy Western corporations. 

In Juba, the pope was equally feisty, saying in his opening speech to authorities that he was disappointed in the lack of progress being made in the country’s peace process and that the South Sudanese people “need fathers, not overlords; they need steady steps toward development, not constant collapses” amid their protracted suffering. 

Yet while the political impact of the pope’s visit and its influence on political leaders and their decision making will be discussed for some time to come and will likely take several months or even years to measure, the impact on the people themselves was palpable from the very beginning. 

In both Kinshasa and Juba, crowds gathered at the airport and lined the streets for blocks upon blocks, with many holding up signs bearing words such as “hope,” “peace,” and “reconciliation.” 

One woman in Juba yelled “peace for South Sudan” as the pope passed by, saying, “We need this for our children!” 

Beyond the pope’s condemnations of violence, corruption, and tribalism, his most impactful moments of the visit were when he met face to face with war victims in Congo and in his meeting with a group of internally displaced people in Juba. 

In his Feb. 1 meeting with victims of the war raging in eastern Congo, Pope Francis heard chilling stories of violence and embraced the maimed in body and spirit, saying the atrocities they endured “bring shame on humanity,” and he condemned those both inside and outside the country who turn a blind eye to the human cost of the conflict in order to turn a profit. 

Speaking to a handful of South Sudan’s 2 million internally displaced people Saturday, Feb. 4, the pope said that he came to show his closeness and to “suffer for you and with you,” calling on them to become “the seeds of a new South Sudan,.” protagonists in shaping a better future for the nation. 

By far, it will be these moments that linger in the hearts and minds of these two battered African nations. 

Father Paulin Sabuy, a Congolese priest who was present for Pope Francis’ Feb. 2 meeting with clergy and religious in Congo, said his visit was one “of consolation and comfort for a people who feel abandoned.” 

“His words seemed to spring from a deep spirituality and a very concrete pastoral outlook. He used very accurate and practical images” that were poignant because of how closely they related to the reality of the country and its people, Father Sabuy said. 

Speaking of the pope’s meeting with war victims in Kinshasa, Father Sabuy, who as a priest is tasked with bringing the same comfort shown by the pope to his people, said the encounter “brought tears to the eyes of many present,” especially the singing of a local song, “Amani,” meaning peace. 

“The victims’ act of commitment to forgive was moving,” he said, noting how each of the victims placed an instrument symbolizing the violence they had endured under a cross as a sign of their forgiveness. 

“This is the culmination of the support they receive from the local Church,” including medical, food, and psychological support, Father Sabuy said, saying he expects this work “to continue with greater zeal and hope.” 

He said he found the pope’s advice for clergy and religious particularly helpful, especially his insistence on maintaining a strong spiritual life. 

“It is there, in the personal relationship with God, that we find the strength for pastoral commitment, to ‘serve but not use the people,’ ” he said, saying the pope gave practical and helpful advice for one’s spiritual life, “which must be nurtured day by day because it is the condition for being able to welcome and accompany people to the encounter with Christ.” 

Likewise, Eduardo Burgueño, a family care doctor who works at the Monkole hospital in Kinshasa and has been living in Congo for some 15 years, said the pope’s trip to Kinshasa was “a very, very important visit to the DRC people.” 

Noting that the trip was delayed for nearly a year, having been originally slated for July 2021, but was postponed because of the pope’s knee troubles, Burgueño said the pope “knows so well these people, these people who have been suffering for many, many years.” 

“This apostolic journey is an incarnation of the will of the Holy Father to accompany, to listen to us, to say to every one of us we are not alone and your sufferings now belong to the whole Church, to the whole Catholic Church, and to the international community,” he said. Burgueño said it often seems as if “nobody were listening” to the people’s suffering and called the papal visit “a great consolation.” 

He said he was impressed with the pope’s sheer will to come, noting that many people try to help, but they do so from their desks in faraway places, whereas to offer real help and support, one must be involved and experience the pain of the people. 

“That is what Pope Francis is teaching us when he is visiting DRC people, South Sudan people … no doubt,” he said. “Pope Francis is a good father and pastor for the Church in Congo. He is a gift for Africa.”