ROME – Canadian Jesuit Cardinal Michael Czerny, a top Vatican official and close papal aide, is currently making a trip to South Sudan, where he told the country’s citizens and leaders that their upcoming general elections must be transparent and nonviolent.

In a Feb. 4 homily in Juba, Czerny noted that South Sudan is due to hold elections later this year, saying, “This is a critical moment in the political life of your country.”

“As you prepare for the general elections, pray and work hard to ensure that it is nonviolent, fair, transparent, credible and peaceful,” he said, saying that for this to be achieved, “there is groundwork to be done, putting into place needed infrastructures in the political sphere, preparing your minds and hearts for possible transition.”

Czerny, prefect of the Vatican Dicastery for Integral Human Development, is making a Feb. 2-9 visit to South Sudan to mark the first anniversary of Pope Francis’s visit to the country in February last year.

General elections in South Sudan are currently scheduled for December, after being repeatedly delayed amid the country’s tumultuous peace process.

The world’s youngest country, South Sudan gained its independence in July 2011, after a lengthy war with neighboring Sudan.

However, conflict erupted internally just two years later, in December 2013, between different factions of the government who were divided along tribal lines, throwing the new country into its own internal war.

An attempted ceasefire in 2014 failed to stop the fighting, and likewise, a 2015 “Compromise Peace Agreement,” which foresaw national general elections, also fell through and fighting continued. Several other opposition groups then popped up, furthering the violence and bloodshed, as easy access to weapons compounded local disputes.

In 2018, an official power-sharing peace agreement was struck, resulting in the formation of a new coalition government in 2020 in which South Sudanese President Salva Kiir maintained his status as president, and Vice President Riek Machar was named the first of five vice presidents.

While the peace agreement continues to hold, it has yet to be fully implemented, with several requirements, including the creation of a unified army and the holding of national elections, yet to come to fruition.

The first general election for South Sudan since its independence was initially scheduled for July 2015, however, an alleged coup d’état put that on hold, with parliament voting that year to amend the transitional constitution of 2011 and extend the country’s parliamentary term until July 2018.

In 2018, elections were again postponed after the new peace agreement was struck agreeing to a 3-year transition period, with elections to be held in 2023. However, a year prior, in 2022, the transitional government and opposition agreed to move elections to December 2024.

Czerny said that a peaceful transition of power is not only a sign of “political maturity,” but is also “assures good governance and holistic development, both of which are so needed.”

“I therefore urge you to be faithful to the peace agreement, not just you but also members of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (R-TGoNU), and all signers of the peace agreement,” he said, referring to the 2018 power-sharing accord.

Czerny said it is critical that South Sudan’s “integrity and commitment bring about the yet-unrealized remaining steps for the election process.”

“The full implementation of these prerequisites will be a guarantee to the population of South Sudan that never again will there be bloodshed, never again will South Sudanese fear insecurity in their own country and never again will the South Sudanese need to seek refuge in other countries due to violence,” he said.

Speaking directly to national authorities, he said, “this is your responsibility as leaders. Don’t forget that God is watching over you as a shepherd and a judge, and don’t forget to root even this work in prayer.”

Pope Francis has long taken a direct interest in South Sudan. When he visited last year, he made the trip alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Ian Greenshields, as part of an ecumenical pilgrimage aimed at encouraging the country’s peace process.

Czerny lamented that since the pope’s visit, there is “little changed or improved since last year,” and he stressed the need for “unity, reconciliation, cooperation, peace” and a change in political will.

He said it is time for violence to end and for citizens to build a new future based on peace, and called for the delivery of humanitarian aid to needy populations, and for investment in young people and processes aimed at building peace and forgiveness.

“There are many efforts towards implementing peace and reconciliation in this country: The government, other political actors, the Church, civil society, local and international partners and the country’s people across the land and in camps for the many displaced are all – each in their own way – desiring, praying and striving for peace,” he said.

Czerny also reflected on the say’s scripture readings, saying Jesus’s healing ministry has deep meaning for South Sudan, “which for decades has experienced vicious cycles of conflict and violence and the hardship and suffering they cause…(Jesus) is constantly reaching out to take you and your people by the hand and lift you up again.”

“This is what we need to do in order to live peacefully with each other: to reach out, to heal and forgive, to find our unity in caring for one another, to find our peace in walking together,” he said.

Czerny stressed the need to voice gratitude for God’s mercy, and said prayer was an essential part of Jesus’s ministry.

“Today, our ministries of healing, liberation, promoting reconciliation and building peace also require our constant prayer, otherwise we get lost, confused and discouraged,” he said, and questioned citizens on the progress made since the pope’s visit.

“Let’s never give up looking for Jesus. Let’s keep asking him to teach us how to pray, to renew our faith and hope and charity, to motivate and orient our service of others and our search for peace,” he said.

In addition to Juba, Czerny will also travel to Malakal and Renk as part of his visit, celebrating a public Mass in Malakal on Feb. 8 for the World Day of Prayer and Reflection against Human Trafficking, in the church of Saint Josephine Bakhita.

In Renk, which sits on the border with Sudan, Czerny will bless a boat used by the local Caritas branch to transport migrants and refugees along the Nile.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on X: @eliseannallen