Pope Francis wound up a peace mission to South Sudan on Sunday urging the people to make themselves immune to the “venom of hatred” to achieve the peace and prosperity that have eluded them through years of bloody ethnic conflicts.
Francis presided at an open-air Mass on the grounds of a mausoleum for South Sudan’s liberation hero John Garang, who died in a helicopter crash in 2005 before the predominantly Christian country broke away from Muslim Sudan in 2011.
The 86-year-old pope wove his homily around the themes that have dominated his trip to the world’s newest nation – reconciliation and mutual forgiveness for past wrongs. The crowd sang, drummed and ululated as Francis entered the dusty area.
He begged the crowd of about 70,000 people to shun the “blind fury of violence”.
Two years after independence, South Sudan plunged into a civil war that killed 400,000 people. Despite a 2018 peace deal between the two main antagonists, bouts of fighting have continued to kill and displace large numbers of civilians.
At the end of the service, in a farewell address shortly before heading to the airport to fly home, the pope thanked the people of South Sudan for the affection they showed him.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he told them. “Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!”
The pope has had a longstanding interest in South Sudan. In one of the most remarkable gestures of his papacy, he knelt to kiss the feet of the country’s previously warring leaders during a meeting at the Vatican in 2019.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the global Anglican Communion, and Iain Greenshields, Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, accompanied the pope during his visit to South Sudan.
The “pilgrimage of peace” was the first time in Christian history that leaders of the Catholic, Anglican and Reformed traditions conducted a joint foreign visit.
Hope of a turning point
Earlier on his Africa trip, the pope visited Democratic Republic of Congo, home to the continent’s largest Roman Catholic community, where he celebrated Mass for a million people and heard harrowing stories from people harmed by war in the eastern part of the country.
Among the worshippers at Sunday’s Mass in the South Sudanese capital Juba was Ferida Modon, 72, who lost three of her children to conflict.
“I want peace to come to South Sudan. Yes, I believe that his visit will change the situation. We are now tired of conflict,” she said. “We want God to listen to our prayers.”
Jesilen Gaba, 42, a widow with four children, said: “The fact that the three Churches united for the sake of South Sudan, this is the turning point for peace. I want the visit to be a blessing to us. We have been at war, we have lost many people.”
Francis made another appeal for an end to the tribalism, financial wrongdoing and political cronyism at the root of many of the country’s problems.
He urged the people to build “good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice”.
South Sudan has some of the largest crude oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa but a U.N. report in 2021 said the country’s leaders had diverted “staggering amounts of money and other wealth” from public coffers and resources.
The government dismissed the report and has denied accusations of widespread corruption.