By Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Pope Francis’ visit to Congo and his ecumenical pilgrimage to South Sudan put a face — actually, thousands of faces — on the horror of war.
But he also seemed energized by the enthusiasm of the crowds in Kinshasa, Congo, Jan. 31-Feb. 3 and buoyed by traveling to Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 3-5 with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Archbishop Welby, joining the pope and Rev. Greenshields for a news conference on the flight back to Rome, used the word “miracle” to describe the three churches pulling off a retreat for South Sudan’s squabbling leaders at the Vatican in 2019.
But none of the three seemed certain this time that their words and gestures changed anything for South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, a former warrior and still an imposing and commanding figure at age 71, or for the five vice presidents who are supposed to be sharing governance with him.
However, Kiir did announce during the trip that his government would return to the negotiating table with five groups that did not sign a 2018 peace agreement. Kiir had withdrawn from the talks in November.
In the absence of peace and with little possibility of returning to their homes, some 2,000 internally displaced people living in camps that dot South Sudan had their own meeting with the three church leaders Feb. 4. They were able to share their stories and their dreams and to do so in the presence of an international press corps.
On the return flight to Rome Feb. 5, Archbishop Welby said with the COVID-19 pandemic there was “a loss of momentum in the peace process,” although the trip showed clearly that the people are desperate for peace after almost 10 years of violent conflicts.
“What we now need is a serious change of heart from the leadership. They have to agree to a process that will lead to a peaceful transition of power. They’ve been told this publicly. We’ve said it to them,” the archbishop said. “There has to be an end to corruption and gun smuggling and the amassing of huge quantities of weapons.”
Pope Francis agreed, saying that the weapons trade “is the biggest plague in the world,” provoking violent confrontations among people so that businesses can go in and exploit their land and their resources.
Meeting South Sudan’s political leaders at the presidential palace in Juba Feb. 3, Pope Francis got right to the point: “Many things are needed here, but surely not more instruments of death!”
While the moderator and the archbishop did not join Pope Francis for the Congo portion of the trip, they and their churches know the challenges facing the Congolese, the destruction and corruption that accompany the extraction of its mineral wealth and the grotesque violence that continues in the country’s eastern region.
In the most emotional part of his journey, Pope Francis came face to face with the results of that violence, blessing a young woman and the twins that were conceived when she repeatedly was raped as a hostage of militias and gently cradling the stump of an arm of another woman whose hands had been cut off.
While there were male victims present at that meeting in Kinshasa Feb. 1 — a priest whose finger was chopped off and boys who had seen their family members hacked to death — in Congo and in South Sudan it was clear that the violence, the poverty and the lack of education, health care and opportunity do not just weigh on the nations’ women, but come close to crushing them.
In the presence of the Congolese victims, Pope Francis said, “I pray that women, every woman, may be respected, protected and esteemed. Violence against women and mothers is violence against God himself, who from a woman, from a mother, took on our human condition.”
Three days later, at the meeting with people living in camps for the displaced, Pope Francis said that “mothers, women are the key to transforming the country. If they receive the proper opportunities, through their industriousness and their natural gift of protecting life, they will have the ability to change the face of South Sudan, to give it a peaceful and cohesive development.”
“I ask you, I ask all the people of these lands, to ensure that women are protected, respected, valued and honored,” he said. “Please, protect, respect, appreciate and honor every woman, every girl, young woman, mother and grandmother. Otherwise, there will be no future.”
That evening, at an ecumenical prayer service with the pope and Rev. Greenshields, Archbishop Welby was even more forceful. He had a message for young South Sudanese men: “You will value and honor women, never raping, never violent, never cruel, never using them as those there simply to satisfy desire.”
“When we are one, we value and honor women,” Archbishop Welby said.
The majority of the population in both Congo and South Sudan are under the age of 30 and, with the violence and poverty, getting an education and decent job are out of reach for many of them. But for girls and women, it is even more difficult.
“Bright, good young minds deserve the opportunity to develop,” Rev. Greenshields told reporters on the flight back to Rome. “Now, from my own experience in other parts of the world, bright young female minds deserve the right to the same opportunities exactly as any others in whatever country, but especially in the developing countries.”
“That would be my plea: The rights of women, and young women in particular, have to be recognized as paramount,” he said.