On 31 January, Pope Francis departed from Rome to central Africa, to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and its neighbouring state South Sudan. The visit was previously scheduled for 2022, but did not take place because of the pope’s health issues.
Pope Francis’ visit to Africa comes at a defining moment for his papacy and for the Catholic church worldwide. He has led a period since December 2019 of global reflection known as “the synodal path” in which Catholics have been able to speak up about the agenda that the church should pursue. A similar exercise, the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, was very successful when it came to involving the whole Catholic church.
Pope Francis is perceived as a progressive pope. He has led the church in opening to the world, including LGBTI communities, though he has failed to convince women that they are really on the same path as men within the Catholic church because they are not part of the priestly ministry and very few women are involved in top leadership roles. His visit to Africa will highlight the intense participation of women within African social communities.
The Catholic church in Africa is thriving and growing – 20% of the world’s Catholics live in Africa. But the African church is more conservative in doctrine and faith than in Europe, thus Pope Francis will have a somewhat harder time advancing his progressive agenda.
Poverty, violence, injustice, corruption, celibacy, the role of women and dialogue with Islam are some of the general themes the pope will cover in his public addresses and meetings. He clearly supports the end of poverty and injustice but he is more conservative regarding the ordination of women and celibacy.
The DRC and Sudan represent the periphery of Africa, where violence and war have been the norm. It is a difficult and challenging visit, much more than his past visits to Kenya and Uganda.
The invitation to the DRC was made by the country’s government and the DRC’s Catholic Bishops Conference. Pope Francis will spend four days in the country and the visit will include a meeting with victims of violence from eastern DRC as well as with NGOs working in the country. He will also meet young people, consecrated religious leaders and clergy, as well as Jesuits working in the DRC.
The DRC, with its Belgian colonial past, represents one of the African countries with more Catholics – 50% of the total population of the country. In the 1960s Pope Paul VI led the African liturgical reform through the Zairian Rite, the Catholic rites with an African flavour, later suspended by Pope John Paul II.
It is also one of the countries where different rebel armies have committed horrific crimes, including mass rape. But the DRC has been home to great theologians and intellectuals as well as a Nobel Prize winner. Dr Denis Mukwege was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, for his medical work with DRC women who had been raped. Pope Francis wants to support peace initiatives and the search for the common good.
In his visit to South Sudan, where 40% of the population are Catholic, Pope Francis will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland. The three will meet with South Sudanese authorities, internally displaced persons and Jesuits. They will also take part in an ecumenical service attended by Christian leaders from different Christian traditions.
The visit to South Sudan provides a continuity and a close relationship between political leaders who have been Christians since the foundation of South Sudan in 2009. Pope Francis has regularly received them at the Vatican and has preached at retreats for them. But this young country has also experienced ethnic violence. Pope Francis wants to provide public support to those leaders who strive for peace.
A difficult task
The pope will have a joyful welcome in both countries but a difficult task. That task is to affirm his belief in peace and understanding and to challenge negative values such as corruption, ethnic violence and violence against women.
It would be important for him to open new avenues for initiatives that would make the Catholic church more African and to foster dialogue with African indigenous religions so as not to make the visit a triumphalist one but an opening to a church closer to African customs and supporting African values – against violence, genocide and ethnic conflict.
This will be one of the most challenging visits abroad by Pope Francis, and a difficult one to Africa because of the violence in the DRC and Sudan. He was in Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic in 2015 with 39 hours of stay in Bangui where he dialogued with Muslim clerics and opened a door to reconciliation with Islam that marked his own papacy. Such initiatives led to later initiatives in Egypt and Iraq. This visit offers new challenges to the Catholic church in Africa and the possibility of a more stable peace in the DRC and Sudan.
Aguilar is the author of the book Pope Francis: Journeys of a Peacemaker