When Pope Francis met the Kenyan bishops during their ad limina visit at the Vatican in April 2015, one of them, Bishop Anthony Muheria of the Diocese of Kitui, joked in Italian, “Thank you, Your Holiness, for saying you will come to Kenya!”—to which Pope Francis replied, “No, no, I only said I was thinking about it!” Four months later, on August 27, the chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop Philip Anyolo of the Diocese of Homa Bay, officially announced that “the Holy Father has accepted our invitation and will visit Kenya in November 2015.” Preparations went into high gear, and today, with just one day left before Pope Francis lands at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi, all is set the Holy Father’s November 25-30 visit to three African countries.
As noted by the director of the Vatican Press office, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, during a press conference last week, “for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, it will be a first time in Africa and not only as Pope.” Pope Francis will be accompanied on his 11th journey abroad by the Vatican’s Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin and Cardinals Filoni and Turkson, respectively prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace. Francis’ six-day journey will take him to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. As Father Lombardi pointed out, two popes have been to these countries before; Blessed Paul VI visited Uganda in 1969, while Saint John Paul II, who visited some 42 African nations during his pontificate, visited Kenya in 1980, 1985, and 1995; Uganda in 1993; and Central African Republic in 1975.
A look at Pope Francis’ itinerary in Kenya reveals a tight schedule, not unlike his previous apostolic visits, most recently to Cuba and the United States. As soon as he lands in Nairobi, Pope Francis will meet with President Uhuru Kenyatta as well as other state officials and members of the diplomatic corps at the State House. Sources within the bishops’ conference indicate that Pope Francis has expressed reservations about a state dinner planned for that evening. An estimated one million people are expected in Nairobi for the papal Mass on the second day. Busloads of faithful will be travelling from all 26 dioceses in Kenya, but other African countries will be represented as well. The large numbers of people expected in the capital have prompted the government to mull over declaring a public holiday on November 26 and 27.
Dialogue, reconciliation, peace, and unity are expected to be the main themes the Holy Father will address all three countries. Kenya and Uganda have recently experienced terrorist attacks, such as the massacre of 147 students at the Garissa University in eastern Kenya on Holy Thursday this year. Pope Francis’ visit to the Central African Republic, November 29-30, will be closely watched in light of global security concerns in the wake of the Beirut, Paris, and Mali attacks. The CAR has experienced instability since its independence in 1960, but the recent violence erupted in March 2013, when the Seleka rebels ousted then-President Francois Bozize. Speaking to the African Service of Vatican Radio in Rome, Father Jesus-Mortiol Demele, director of Notre Dame Radio in the CAR capital Bangui, said Pope Francis’ visit “will bring peace and hope to all the people of the CAR and the neighboring countries.”
South Sudan and Burundi, while not on the Pope’s itinerary, are expected to receive attention during his visit. The protracted war in South Sudan continues despite a peace agreement negotiated and signed in Ethiopia this year. Consequently, farmers in some regions, such as Upper Nile and Unity States, are unable to grow food and now rely on aid agencies such as the World Food Program, which says that about four million people, mainly women and children, face acute hunger.
Last week, the US government’s special envoy to Africa’s Great Lakes region, Tom Perriello, warned of a return to civil war in Burundi, but expressed hope that the Pope’s visit to Africa could assist in galvanizing peace efforts and pulling the country back from the brink.
“Don’t forget the poor!” These words of Cardinal Claudio Hummes to Cardinal Bergoglio during the conclave, as it became evident the latter was being elected pope, will certainly echo during this Africa visit. On his final day in Nairobi, Pope Francis will visit St. Joseph the Worker Church in Kangemi, a poor neighborhood. There he will meet with 1,200 people drawn from 11 slums in Nairobi. Asked what he expected from the Pope’s visit to St. Joseph the Worker, the parish’s pastor, Jesuit Father Paschal Mwijage, responded, “The fact that he [the Pope] is coming here is already enough.” In the Central African Republic, Pope Francis is scheduled to visit a refugee camp, while in Uganda he will visit the Mapeera Bakateyamba’s Home for the destitute at Nalukolongo, again emphasizing his deep concern for and solidarity with those facing the greatest need in society.
The United Nations Office in Nairobi will also have Pope Francis as its guest. At a recent press briefing the government spokesman, Mr. Manoah Esipisu, indicated that “the Holy Father will discuss climate change when he visits with diplomats at UNEP headquarters. His speech is critical as it will come only a few days before the 21st Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, known by the acronym CoP21, which will be held in Paris.” The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) and the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) are the only UN agencies headquartered in the global south and so, when Pope Francis speaks there, just a few months after the release of the encyclical Laudato Si, it will be a strong signal to world leaders to “hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.”
The Church in Kenya will also make a strong environmental statement when young people present tree seedlings for blessing during Pope Francis’ encounter with more than 200,000 young people at the Kasarani Stadium in Nairobi, the penultimate event on the Kenyan leg of his trip. Among those expected to present the tree seedlings are representatives of the Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa (CYNESA), which promotes Catholic social teaching on care of creation among young people. CYNESA is also a co-founding member of the Global Catholic Climate Movement (GCCM). In May, Pope Francis endorsed the Catholic Climate Petition sponsored by GCCM. The petition calls on world leaders at the CoP21 climate summit, to be held November 30-December 11, to “drastically cut carbon emissions to keep the global temperature rise below the dangerous 1.5˚C threshold, and to aid the world’s poorest in coping with climate change impacts.” Parts of Kenya are currently experiencing serious flooding, while countries in Southern Africa are enduring their worst drought in more than 30 years.
One of the major highlights of Pope Francis’ trip to Uganda will be visits to the Anglican and Catholic shrines of the Martyrs of Namugongo, where he will celebrate Mass marking the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the 22 Catholic martyrs. This will in a sense re-affirm the “coming of age” of the Church in Africa, which, having been evangelized, now sends out missionaries to the Universal Church.
About 75 journalists are joining Pope Francis on the trip and many key events will be streamed live online, offering the rest of the world a chance to experience the African Church. The words of Cardinal Berhaneyesus Souraphiel, CM, archbishop of Addis Abeba, Ethiopia and chairman of the regional Association of Member Episcopal Conference of Eastern Africa, beautifully summarize what we may expect: “Your Holiness Pope Francis, we are very happy that you have come to visit Africa. Welcome to Africa, the ‘second home’ of our Lord Jesus Christ, who came as a refugee to this continent when King Herod wanted to kill him. Africans love life. They stand for life. They love family life, especially the extended family. They have great respect for elders and guests. They have also great respect and care for animals, wild life, and the environment. We have been praying for you and for your pastoral visit among us.”
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