Rome Newsroom, Feb 3, 2023 / 07:37 am (CNA).
Pope Francis on Friday became the first pope to visit South Sudan — fulfilling a yearslong hope to carry out an ecumenical trip to the war-torn country.
The pope has called his Feb. 3-5 visit to Juba, South Sudan’s capital, a “pilgrimage of peace.” His Anglican counterpart, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, along with the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, will visit the newest African nation together.
Pope Francis had spoken about the possibility of the trip as early as 2017, fewer than four years after the outbreak of civil war in 2013.
He has personally intervened to send aid to the country and to encourage South Sudan’s leaders to reach a real and lasting peace agreement — including inviting President Salva Kiir Mayardit and his former rival Vice President Riek Machar for a retreat at the Vatican.
After landing in South Sudan in the afternoon of Feb. 3, Pope Francis was joined by Archbishop Welby and Right Rev. Greenshields.
The three met Mayardit at the president’s residence before Pope Francis and Mayardit separated for a private encounter.
The pope’s first speech in the country will be to authorities, members of the diplomatic corps, and representatives of civil society.
On Feb. 4 he will meet bishops, priests, and consecrated men and women in St. Theresa Cathedral, the seat of the archbishop of Juba.
Bishops from the country of Sudan, from whom South Sudan separated in 2011, will also be present at the meeting.
There are seven Catholic dioceses in South Sudan, with the number of Catholics estimated to be 7.2 million, according to the Vatican.
The country’s total estimated population in 2022, according to the CIA World Factbook, is 11 million. The country is more than 60% Christian.
Pope Francis will also meet South Sudanese refugees, people who have been internally displaced due to the war, before leading an ecumenical prayer service.
On his final day on Feb. 5, the pope will celebrate Sunday Mass in English at the John Garang Mausoleum. He will then lead the Angelus, a traditional Marian prayer, before flying back to Rome.
Pope Francis arrived in South Sudan after four days in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
He landed in the DRC’s capital city of Kinshasa on Jan. 31. During the visit, Francis met the president and prime minister, local authorities, and bishops, priests, and religious.
He also celebrated Mass for more than 1 million of the DRC’s Catholics and held an energetic event with 65,000 young adults and religious education teachers.
In a moving encounter on Feb. 1, Francis embraced victims of violence in eastern Congo, who shared with him their harrowing stories of rape and torture.
During the meeting, children laid down the machetes and knives used to kill their families at the foot of the cross to symbolize their forgiveness.
He praised the African country’s enthusiasm, joy, and missionary zeal in his encounter with Catholic bishops on Feb. 3.
The trip is the 40th international journey of Francis’ pontificate. South Sudan is the 10th country Pope Francis has visited on the African continent.
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