By Fr. Michael Nsikak Umoh, CSN
Not minding his fragile health, the Holy Father, Pope Francis, will visit the war-torn and violence-ravaging Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan from 31 January to 5 February, 2023, with the sole aim of fostering peace and reconciliation. To this end, the Catholic Bishop of Sokoto, Most Rev. Matthew Hassan Kukah, has been designated as part of the special delegation of Bishops to receive the 86-year-old Pontiff in Kinshasa, Congo.
The President of the Reunion of Episcopal Conferences of West Africa (RECOWA), Most Rev. Alexis Touabli Youlo, communicated the choice of Bishop Kukah for this assignment in a letter signed by the Secretary General of RECOWA, Very Rev. Fr. Vitalis Anaehobi.
Going by Vatican records, Congo is estimated to have about 45 million Roman Catholics, which makes it the largest community of Catholics in Africa. Thus, the Catholic Church contributes immensely to the social welfare of the country; providing about 40% of the country’s health facilities and in terms of education, with over 6 million children in Catholic schools. For millions of Catholics therefore, the Pope’s visit is expected to make way for lasting peace to the ravaged mineral-rich nation, where millions of lives have been wrecked.
It will be recalled that in February 2021, the Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio, his bodyguard and their driver were killed during a botched kidnapping on their way in eastern Congo to inspecting a U.N. humanitarian project. The Pope met his widow last year. Similarly, earlier in January, the Holy Father sent his condolences to the victims of a bombing on a Pentecostal church that killed at least 14 people and injured more than 60 in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Violence has wrecked eastern Congo for decades as more than 120 armed groups and self-defence militias fight for land and power.
Pope Francis has been a strong voice against the injustice and violence in DRC and in most part of Africa, denouncing what he described as a “colonialist mentality” of the international community toward Africa. “There is a historical, geographical reality. In Italian it is said ‘Africa va fruttata’, that is, Africa is meant to be exploited. And that is a kind of colonialist mentality that remains,” he averred.
The second part of the pastoral visit, which is to South Sudan from February 3 to 5 2023, is quite symbolic as the Pope will be joined by Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby and Church of Scotland Moderator, Iain Greenshields Land in Juba on Friday, Feb. 3.
The joint ecumenical visit by the leaders of the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Reformed Christian traditions, described as a “pilgrimage of peace”, is the first of its kind. “We pray that the symbolism of our joint visit will show that reconciliation and forgiveness are possible – and that relationships can be transformed,” Welby said in a statement when the visit was first announced.
The three religious leaders are expected to meet with the President, Salva Kiir, then South Sudanese authorities, civil society and the diplomatic corps. This will be followed by a meeting with the Bishops and other clergy at the Cathedral of Saint Therese on Saturday, and later with internally displaced persons. Almost 6 million people are internally displaced and hundreds of thousands are facing extreme food insecurity in these sub-Saharan nations, according to the United Nations.