Pope Francis kneels to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit, at the Vatican, Thursday, April 11, 2019. Pope Francis has closed a two-day retreat with South Sudan authorities at the Vatican with an unprecedented act of respect, kneeling down and kissing the feet of the African leaders. (©Vatican Media via AP)
In July, Pope Francis will travel to Congo and South Sudan, fulfilling a long-held desire to minister to Catholics in African countries with large Catholic populations and lengthy histories of war.
Officials announced Thursday that the Archbishop of Canterbury will accompany him to South Sudan for the latest ecumenical endeavor to cement peace in the young country.
For years, Francis has intended to visit South Sudan, but security concerns have kept him from doing so, including a planned joint visit with Archbishop of Canterbury.
Archbishop Justin Welby’s spokesman informed The Associated Press on Thursday:
“I can confirm that the Archbishop of Canterbury will join the pope in South Sudan.”
Rev. Jim Wallace, the moderator of the Church of Scotland, is also anticipated to represent the country’s major Christian faith organizations.
According to locals, the Pope’s visit with a message of peace could be useful to South Sudan, which has been independent from Sudan for little over a decade. The government’s delayed execution of a 2018 peace agreement ending a five-year civil war, including the important process of combining and deploying the once-rival armed forces, has sparked international outrage.
The civil war claimed the lives of an estimated 400,000 people, and hundreds more are continually dying as a result of intercommunal violence throughout the country.Other difficulties obstructing recovery from the conflict include the greatest flooding in 60 years, rising hunger, and corruption.
Francis will visit Kinshasa, Congo’s capital, and Goma, the country’s eastern city, from July 2 to 5, and Juba, South Sudan, from July 5-7, according to the Vatican. It will be Francis’ third journey to Sub-Saharan Africa and one of his longest in recent years.
In 2015, he traveled to Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic, and in 2019, he traveled to Mozambique, Mauritius, and Madagascar. In 2017, Francis paid a visit to Egypt, followed by a visit to Morocco two years later.
The trip will put the 85-year-old pontiff’s stamina and agility to the test. Last July, he spent ten days in the hospital after having 33 centimeters (13 inches) of his big intestine removed.
The pope postponed two events this week due to significant knee discomfort that makes walking and standing difficult. His doctors had advised him to rest, according to the Vatican. The only other international travel announced by the Vatican for this year is a visit to Malta on April 2-3.
The pope summoned South Sudan’s opposing leaders to the Vatican for an Easter conference in 2019, and stunned witnesses when he knelt and kissed their feet in a heartfelt plea for peace.
South Sudan President Salva Kiir, who is Catholic, and his longstanding opponent Riek Machar should reinvigorate their political will, according to Garang Deng, a Juba resident.
On Thursday, the Rev. Samuel Abe of the Catholic archdiocese of Juba told The Associated Press that the pope’s arrival will give additional impetus to the hunt for peace.
“We are very happy and excited. Such a visit is unusual. So we expect blessings from him,” he said.
The Catholic Church in Congo has long been a significant voice in the mainly Catholic country, and church leaders are already calling for mobilization efforts to welcome Francis, who will be the first pope to visit the country since St. John Paul II in 1985.
“Such an announcement constitutes an invaluable goodness that the Lord has given to our country, to our people, a people who are going through difficult times today,” said Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, the archbishop of Kinshasa in a short address after the announcement.
He called on the Congolese to unify during the visit, which would take place amid instability and continuous bloodshed across the central African country.