KINSHASA, Congo (AP) — Pope Francis began a six-day visit to Congo and South Sudan on Tuesday, aiming to bring a message of peace to two countries riven by poverty, conflict and what Francis has called a lingering “colonialist mentality” that still considers Africa ripe for exploitation.
Francis landed at Kinshasa’s airport and was greeted by tens of thousands of Congolese who lined the main road into the city, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.
“The Pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” Sultan Ntambwe said as he waited for Francis’ arrival.
Aid groups are hoping Francis’ trip will shine a spotlight on two of the world’s forgotten conflicts and rekindle international attention on some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, amid donor fatigue and new aid priorities in Ukraine.
But Francis’ trip will also bring him face-to-face with the future of the Catholic Church: Africa is one of the only places in the world where the Catholic flock is growing, in terms of practicing faithful as well as fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
That makes his trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as Francis seeks to make his mark on reshaping the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls” where all are welcome and poor people have a special pride of place.
“Yes, Africa is in turmoil and is also suffering from the invasion of exploiters,” Francis told The Associated Press in an interview last week. But he said the church can also learn from the continent and its people.
“We need to listen to their culture: dialogue, learn, talk, promote,” Francis said, suggesting that his message would differ from the scolding tone St. John Paul II used in 1980 and 1985 when he reminded Congolese priests and bishops of the need to stick to their celibacy vows.
Congo, Francis’ first stop, stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians — 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’ main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis’ biggest Masses ever.
Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”
Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.
“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”
Inniance Mukania, who traveled to Kinshasa from the Kolwezi diocese in southern Congo, marveled at the efforts undertaken by some of the faithful.
“There are people who chartered planes to come here because there were so many of them!” Mukania said.
On the eve of the pope’s visit, President Felix Tshisekedi met with foreign diplomats in Kinshasa and told them the visit was a sign of solidarity “particularly with the battered populations of the eastern part of the country, prey to acts of violence and intolerance that you are witnessing.”
The trip was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis’ knee problems. It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.
Instead, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
While the people of Goma were saddened that Francis won’t be visiting the east, “we hope with the visit that the pope can bring a message of peace to the people of Congo who need it,” said Providence Bireke, a Goma-based manager with AVSI, an Italian aid group active in the area.
The second leg of Francis’ trip will bring him to South Sudan, the world’s youngest country where continued fighting has hampered implementation of a 2018 peace deal to end a civil war. Francis first voiced his hope of visiting the majority Christian country in 2017, but security concerns prevented a visit and only contributed to worsening a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more than 2 million people.
The South Sudan stop also marks a novelty in the history of papal travel, in that Francis will be joined on the ground by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields.
The aim of the three-way visit is to show a united Christian commitment to helping South Sudan make progress on the implementation of the 2018 accord. Francis presided over a similar joint initiative in 2019 in the Vatican when he famously got down on hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders, begging them to make peace.
Since then, progress on implementing the accord — in particular creating a unified army comprised of government forces and opposition fighters — has been “painfully slow,” said Paolo Impagliazzo of the Sant’Egidio Community, which has spearheaded an initiative to bring the groups that didn’t sign onto the 2018 accord into the process.
“The visit will bring hope to the people,” Impagliazzo said in an interview in Rome. “And I believe the visit will strengthen the churches — the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the local church — that are playing a critical role in bringing about peace and dialogue in South Sudan.”
Christina Malkia contributed to this report from Kinshasa.
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