News that Pope Francis will not be able to visit South Sudan this year prompted the nation’s bishops to voice reassurances that a future visit is possible, and ask for a renewed commitment to peace.
“Pope Francis is very particularly (concerned) about the welfare of the suffering people in the world, and so is he for South Sudan,” the bishops said June 6, adding that the pope “continues to remind us of the costs of war, particularly on the powerless and defenseless, and urge us toward the imperative of peace.”
Bishop Barani Eduardo Hiiboro Kussala of Tombura-Yambio, president of the Sudan Catholic Bishops’ Conference, wrote the statement representing bishops from both Sudan and South Sudan.
He noted the pope’s great concern about the country and his prayers for South Sudan on several occasions at the Angelus and at the weekly audiences in Vatican City.
Sudan has been the scene of nearly continuous civil war since it gained independence in 1956. Many of the initial problems were caused by corruption in the government, which led to the political, economic, and religious marginalization of the country’s peripheries.
South Sudan became an independent country in 2011, but has been torn by a civil war since December 2013, between the state forces – the Sudan People’s Liberation Army – and opposition forces, as well as sectarian conflict. A peace agreement was eventually signed, but was broken by violence in the summer of 2016.
The bishops voiced “great desire, hope and expectation” that a papal visit will be reconsidered, noting it would be the first papal visit to the new country of South Sudan. St. John Paul II visited Sudan in 1993.
A visit from the pontiff could have “uplifted the faith” of Christians and other believers and raised expectations of peace. His presence would console the grieving and heal the broken-hearted, they said.
The bishops said the pope’s decision not to visit in 2017 should be received “in respect and prayer.” They suggested challenges facing the country, including lack of security, were obstacles to a papal visit.
They encouraged the faithful of the two countries to embark on “a very serious spiritual self-discernment” that includes peace-building in order to create an atmosphere conducive to a papal visit.
“Be that agent of change needed in South Sudan! Pray a lot more in sincere repentance of heart with the aim of consolidating peace in the country,” the bishops of Sudan and South Sudan said. “It is only such activities which can bring the Holy Father to South Sudan in no distant period.”
The bishops reflected on Francis’s witness in the world.
“The Holy Father has been a leading voice for peace and for dialogue between people of different faiths and nations,” the bishops’ statement continued. “He has also, in both his words and his deeds, called all of us to address the challenges of poverty and inequality in our own country and around the world.
“He reminds us that in the eyes of God our measure as individuals, and our measure as a society, is not determined by power or wealth or station or celebrity, but by how well we attend to Scripture’s call to lift up the poor and the marginalized, to stand up for justice and against inequality, and to ensure that every human being is able to live in dignity – because we are all made in the image of God,” the bishops said.
In late May, Vatican spokesman Greg Burke confirmed that Francis would not visit South Sudan in 2017. He had hoped to travel there with Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, the highest prelate of the Church of England, to advance peace in the country.
Burke said the trip is still under consideration, but just “not this year.”
In fall 2016 the pope met with ecumenical leaders from South Sudan. They discussed the situation in the country, stressing the collaboration present among Christians to face its challenges, and the delegation also invited Francis to visit.