ROME – There are now less than two months to go until Pope Francis’s highly-anticipated visit to South Sudan, which has been widely praised as a sign of hope and encouragement for the war-torn country as its leaders continue to navigate a complex path to peace.

The papal visit will undoubtedly bring fresh impetus to this process and provide much-needed consolation to a population suffering from years of violent conflict and one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

But it is the Catholic missionaries in the country who have long been putting their lives at risk to serve the people of South Sudan, and they will continue to do so after the pope is gone.

When civil war erupted in South Sudan shortly after its independence in 2011, “the religious, for the most part, never left,” said Paolo Impagliazzo, secretary general of the Sant’Egidio Community, a Catholic movement dedicated to social justice, which has been active for years at both the pastoral and political level in South Sudan.

Throughout the conflict, missionaries “were for the most part at the people’s side, in different situations. They showed a closeness to the people that no one will forget,” Impagliazzo said, calling their contribution in the country “very, very important.”

Missionaries, he said, “care for the smallest, the most discarded, the sick,” and because of this are widely respected by the general population, regardless of religion.

Noting that there are roughly 700 missionaries in South Sudan, Impagliazzo said they are the ones who carry out essential services such as health care and education. Many are also involved in pastoral work, collaborating with members of other Christian communities to lead projects and activities on the ground.

“It’s a multiform church with a lot of denominations, but also very beautiful in its witness. Missionaries are truly a sign of hope for the country,” he said.

Two of these missionaries were Sisters Mary Daniel Abut and Regina Roba, both South Sudanese members of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart in the Archdiocese of Juba. They were killed in an ambush on Aug. 16, 2021, while returning from the centenary celebration of the Catholic Church of the Assumption in the eastern Diocese of Torit.

The minibus carrying nine sisters from the congregation was stopped by gunmen, who opened fire as the sisters ran into the bushes, killing Abut, Roba, and three others.

In the wake of the attack, the Archdiocese of Juba observed five days of mourning, and Pope Francis sent a telegram expressing his sorrow over the “brutal attack,” and offering his condolences for the “senseless act of violence.”

He voiced hope that the sisters’ sacrifice “will advance the cause of peace, reconciliation and security in the region,” which despite undergoing the implementation of a national peace process, is still plagued by violence.

Sant’Egidio recently held a memorial for the slain nuns at the basilica of San Bartolomeo all’Isola, which contains a chapel and altar dedicated to the new African martyrs.

During the memorial, which was presided over by Italian Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, fragments of the sandals, religious habits, and pectoral crosses of the sisters were placed inside the altar.

Impagliazzo said Sant’Egidio, in honor of the sisters, has helped to build a library for a school that one of them was in charge of before her death, as the library had long been a goal to help the children in their studies.

“Unfortunately, South Sudan still suffers today because violence is very widespread…and even religious have felt the effects,” Impagliazzo said, and pointed to a separate attack last year against the bishop-elect of Rumbek, Christian Carlassare, in which he was shot in the legs by gunmen who entered his compound at night for allegedly tribal motives.

Carlassare has since recovered and is now back in South Sudan. He was recently installed as Bishop of Rumbek after a year-long delay while he recovered from the attack.

According to Impagliazzo, much of the current violence has little to do with the civil war, which has largely calmed as the implementation of a 2018 peace agreement between the government and opposition forces moves forward, albeit slowly.

Rather, the current violence is mostly tied to easy access to weapons, and “unfortunately there are a lot of weapons” in South Sudan, in large part because of the war.

“Violence is widespread because there is no rule of law. There is no policy, there is no army,” Impagliazzo said, adding, “If you commit a crime, there is no one who will prosecute you, and neither are you as a citizen protected by the state.”

Because of this, “there is risk that the violence will never be countered because the force of the state to counter it is lacking,” he said.

One of the stipulations of South Sudan’s peace agreement is that a unified national army be formed, and while that process has begun, it will take time.

In the meantime, Impagliazzo said South Sudan “must be very courageous” in its efforts to promote peace and reconciliation.

He voiced his conviction that Pope Francis’s visit will aide immensely in this process, saying the pope’s frequent pleas on behalf of South Sudan and his decision to get on his knees and kiss the feet of government and opposition leaders during a 2019 Vatican retreat as a request for peace went a long way in promoting reconciliation.

Francis’s visit, he said, “will have extraordinary value for South Sudan, which is a country that has suffered a lot and needs encouragement. It can be a push toward beginning a real path of reconciliation, to heal from this violence.”

The national peace process, while moving forward, is something that “will take time, because divisions have deepened among different groups and tribes,” so healing will be a lengthy, and perhaps generational process, he said.

This is why the work of missionaries is essential, he said, saying, “They really do a very important work. The pope did well to adopt this country, it requires an extra eye of accompaniment to grow and strengthen.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen