ROME — Pope Francis begins a six-day trip to Africa Wednesday, visiting Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic. It will be his first visit to the continent, and in his own words, he’s going to spread Jesus’ “message of reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace.”
The pope will deliver 18 speeches and celebrate four open-air Masses. He’ll also meet religious and political leaders as well as local youths, and reach out to the underprivileged with visits to a slum and a refugee camp.
Considered Francis’ most dangerous trip so far, local authorities have been asserting that they’re doing everything possible to ensure his safety.
Joseph Nkaissery, Kenya’s interior minister, tweeted a message about the pope’s safety Monday:
— KBC Channel1 News (@KBCChannel1) November 24, 2015
Likewise, Polly Namaye, Uganda’s police spokeswoman, said Monday that the country has “integrated several security agencies including the army, intelligence services, prisons” to reinforce safety during the pope’s visit.
Security concerns still linger regarding the last stop of his tour, as the Central African Republic is currently embroiled in a civil conflict featuring clashes between the local Christian and Muslim communities.
Agence France-Presse reports that Catherine Samba Panza, acting president of the former French colony, is considering cutting the visit short to just a few hours in Bangui’s airport under the watchful gaze of UN peacekeepers.
The Vatican insists, however, that Francis is determined to visit the country and that no changes have been made to the schedule. On Thursday, a Vatican spokesman confirmed that Francis will ride in an open-air popemobile and dismissed reports that the pope will wear a bulletproof vest.
Francis’ first stop will be Nairobi, Kenya’s capital. During the 48 hours he’ll be there, the pontiff will have an interreligious and ecumenical meeting with local leaders, celebrate an open air Mass expected to draw a million people, deliver a speech in the United Nations office, visit a slum, and address local youth.
More than 30 percent of the Kenyan population is Catholic, and the Church plays a key role as it runs 25 percent of the schools and provides health care to 30 percent of the population, at times being the only institutional presence in remote rural areas where not even the government has reached.
According to the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman, it’s possible that on Friday, as he meets the youths in Kasarani Stadium, Francis will addresses the tragic terrorist attack that killed almost 150 Christian students last April at Garissa University College.
In recent years, militants of the Somalia-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab have been attacking northern areas of the country. According to Bishop James Maria Wainaina Kungu, they’re trying to “create a Muslim-only zone,” in their pursuit to “serve the interests of the expansion of Islam.”
For the bishop, who spoke with journalists in late October, the visit will “allow the people to feel they’re part of the universal Church, to know that their contribution is felt even at a Roman level, where the Holy Father is.”
The second leg of Francis’ visit, Uganda, might see the largest crowds during the six-day tour. On Saturday, more than two million people are expected for a Mass he’ll celebrate near the Uganda Martyrs Shrine, located in the Kampala suburb of Namugongo.
When he lands at Entebbe Airport Friday, Francis will become the third pope to visit Uganda after Blessed Paul VI and St. John Paul II, who visited the country three times, making this the most-visited African country by a pope.
The pope’s visit will include addresses to local leaders, a group of catechists and teachers, religious men and women, and a visit to the House of Charity of Nalukolongo.
The central focus will be celebration of the 50th anniversary of the canonization of Uganda’s 22 Catholic martyrs, who died alongside 23 Anglican martyrs in the 1880s. They were murdered on the orders of a local king eager to thwart the influence of Christianity in the region.
The anniversary was last year, as they were canonized by Paul VI in 1964, but the pope couldn’t make the visit due to schedule conflicts.
The Rev. Herman-Joseph Kalungi, of Uganda’s Masaka Diocese, said that Pope Francis will encounter a country where political integration is still lacking and poverty is manifested in “hunger, illness, and a poor medical system.” Poverty is also manifested in the spread of HIV, with seven percent of the adult population believed to be infected with the virus.
As in Kenya, the Catholic Church in Uganda plays a key role. Until 15 years ago, virtually every school was church-run, either under Catholic or Anglican denomination. Since then, the state launched a universal primary education system, but according to Kalungi, most finish school without knowing how to read or write.
Kalungi also said that “Pentecostalism and syncretism” are among the biggest challenges the Church faces, but, generally, relations with Protestants and Muslims are good.
“People tend to say ‘if my faith doesn’t help, that of my parents will,’ so the mix the two” he said. The Protestant presence, he added, has caused “confusion” with their message of prosperity and immediate happiness, because they present a “God of miracles [that] is something tempting for many Catholics.”
Central African Republic
His visit to Bangui, the capital of this conflict-torn nation, will make Francis the first pope to travel to an active war zone.
When John Paul II visited Nicaragua in the early 1980s, there was a war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, but he did not visit a conflict area. In the Central African Republic, the capital itself is part of the battle zone, with a church being bombed less than a month ago.
Assuming the planned schedule holds up, Francis will spend 27 hours here. He’ll celebrate two Masses and hear confessions of young people, and on Monday will meet the Muslim community in the central mosque of Koudoukou, located in the notoriously dangerous neighborhood PK5, controlled by jihadist militias.
During his visit, Francis will urge efforts towards peace, social justice, and reconciliation between Islam (15 percent of the population) and Christianity (80 percent of the population).
To reinforce his message, on Sunday Francis will open a “Holy Door” in Bangui’s cathedral, 10 days before the official start of the Holy Year of Mercy, set for Dec. 8.
His visit to Africa will be Francis 11th international trip since the beginning of his pontificate in March 2013. Rumors, confirmed by local cardinals but not yet by the Vatican, suggest he’ll travel to Mexico in February.
Unless something unpredictable happens, it is confirmed that he’ll go to Krakow, Poland, in July to participate in the Catholic Church’s World Youth Day.