“Be artisans of the human and spiritual renewal of your country. I underline, artisans of the human and spiritual renewal.” With these words to the Christians of Central Africa, Pope Francis ended his historic first visit to the African continent, at a colorful Mass held at the Barthélémy Boganda Stadium.
His visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) was perhaps the most anticipated leg of his three-nation African visit. The country has been engulfed in conflict for decades, with the latest flare-ups assuming a religious dimension. Many were afraid for the Pope’s personal security. On the flight to Nairobi, Pope Francis, in response to a question from a journalist about security issues, quipped that he was more concerned about mosquitoes. It was the first time a Pope visited an active war zone. Bishop Victor Phalana of the Diocese of Klerksdorp, South Africa noted that “the Pope is a messenger of peace. He will not choose comfort and security. He risks going to places of war to identify with the victims, to give them courage and solace. Let his visit encourage peace in this country. He says do not hate. Love your enemies.”
As Jesuit Father Paterne Mombe explained in a March 2014 CWR interview, society in the CAR became fractured along religious lines three years ago. However, analysts point out that the struggle for political power and the control of natural resources, mainly gold and diamond mines, are at the heart of the recurring conflicts.
In his address to the civil authorities and diplomats upon his arrival in the CAR capital of Bangui on Sunday, November 29, Pope Francis highlighted three points, drawing from the motto of the CAR: Unity, Dignity, and Labor. He invited Central Africans to avoid “the temptation of the fear of others,” noting that unity in diversity demand creativity, generosity, self-sacrifice, and respect for others. Further, Pope Francis called for access to education, health care, decent housing, and adequate nutrition as a pathway to enhancing human dignity. The CAR is one of six countries spanned by the Congo forest basin. In his speech, and quoting his encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis drew the attention of “everyone, citizens and national leaders, international partners and multinational societies, to their grave responsibility” in managing environmental resources. Pope Francis finally turned his attention to peace and reconciliation, joining the local bishops in expressing the readiness of the local Church to contribute to this mission, in the promotion of the common good.
Straight from the Presidential Palace, Pope Francis went to a refugee camp, where he reminded everyone present that “we are all brothers, regardless of our ethnic or religious group.” More than 25 percent of the population in the CAR has been displaced by the violence. Personally, I was very moved to see a photo of Pope Francis shaking hands with a refugee, a young man who was standing with the help of crutches. What struck me was to see the Pope using both his hands in the handshake. In many parts of Africa, people use both hands when greeting their elders or important people. Father Rampe Hlobo, a South African Jesuit and former director of the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Africa, observed that the action was “a powerful symbol and a strong message to all: refugees also carry the human dignity incarnate in every human being, and should be treated thus.”
Later that evening, in what may be considered the most significant moment of his pastoral visit to the Church in Africa, Pope Francis opened the Holy Door for the Jubilee Year of Mercy at the Cathedral of Bangui, soon after meeting with Evangelical communities that were gathered at the Faculty of Evangelical Theology. “God has brought me here among you, in this land, while the universal Church is preparing for the opening of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which we inaugurated here today,” said Pope Francis at the beginning of his homily during Mass immediately after opening the Holy Door. He encouraged the congregation “to work for a peace founded on justice,” because “God is righteousness; God is justice.” He urged the priests, religious, and lay pastoral workers to “discover the Lord as the true center of all that is good,” and made an impassioned appeal to “all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world, to lay down these instruments of death!” He added “arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace.”
The neighborhood known as PK5 in Bangui is considered one of the most dangerous places in the capital. It is also the location of the Central Mosque of Koudoukou. Muslims in this area have been under siege from the “Anti-Balaka” militia, made up of mostly Christian youth. It is here that Pope Francis chose to meet with the Muslim community before the final Mass that concluded his visit. “My pastoral visit to the CAR would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community,” the Pope said, adding that “Christians, Muslims, and members of traditional religions have lived together for many years.” He urged all to reject hatred, revenge, and violence, especially acts of violence carried out in the name of religion or of God himself, reminding them that “God is peace, God is salaam.”
At the final Mass of his pastoral visit to Africa, concelebrated with Cardinal Peter Turkson, Archbishop Dieudonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, and the country’s bishops and priests, Pope Francis called for gratitude, forgiveness, hope, and enthusiasm for the future. “The other shore is at hand, and Jesus is crossing the river with us. He is risen from the dead; henceforth the trials and sufferings which we experience are always opportunities opening up to a new future, provided we are willing to follow Him.” Pope Francis concluded by calling on every Christian of Central Africa to persevere in faith and missionary commitment.
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