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KINSHASA – On his second day in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pope Francis told Catholics to go beyond ethnic and regional divides in fostering peace, and stressed forgiveness and conversion in overcoming violence and divisions currently tearing apart the country with Africa’s largest Catholic population.
He stressed the need to forgive even those who perpetrate violence, and called those who responsible for the country’s decades-long war to conversion.
Speaking during his Feb. 1 public Mass in Kinshasa, the pope said Christians “are called to be missionaries of peace,” insisting that “it is a decision we have to make.”
“We need to find room in our hearts for everyone; to believe that ethnic, regional, social and religious differences are secondary and not obstacles; that others are our brothers and sisters, members of the same human community; and that the peace brought into the world by Jesus is meant for everyone,” he said.
Christians, he said, have the task of cooperating with everyone in order to “break the cycle of violence, to dismantle the machinations of hatred.”
“Yes, Christians, sent by Christ, are called by definition to be a conscience of peace in our world. Not merely critical consciences, but primarily witnesses of love. Not concerned with their own rights, but with those of the Gospel, which are fraternity, love and forgiveness,” he said.
Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport Wednesday, where hundreds of thousands had gathered for hours before the ceremony, singing and dancing in colorful local dress as they waved banners and awaited his arrival.
He is making a Jan. 31-Feb. 5 trip to Africa, stopping first in the Democratic Republic of Congo before making his way to South Sudan, where he will make an ecumenical visit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
Congo, which has a population of roughly 100 million, is a majority Christian nation, with roughly 50 percent of Christians belonging to the Catholic Church.
Large crowds lined the streets to greet Pope Francis after his arrival Tuesday, and faithful came out in droves to attend his public Mass.
In his homily, the pope noted that in the day’s Gospel reading, Jesus greets his disciples saying, “peace be with you,” a salutation he said “is more than a greeting: it is a gift.”
Peace, he said, “comes from the resurrection, because the Lord first had to defeat our enemies, sin and death, and reconcile the world to the Father. He had to experience our solitude and abandonment, our hell, embracing and removing the distance that separates us from life and hope.”
Noting that the disciples were distraught and confused after Jesus’s death, Francis said Jesus “comes and proclaims peace, even as his disciples’ hearts were downcast. He announces life, even as they felt surrounded by death.”
“In other words, the peace of Jesus arrived at the very moment when, suddenly and to their surprise, everything seemed to be over for them, without even a glimmer of peace,” he said, saying, “That is what the Lord does: he surprises us; he takes us by the hand when we are falling; he lifts us up when we are hitting rock bottom.”
In order to safeguard and spread this message of peace, Pope Francis said faithful must focus on forgiveness, community and mission.
On the topic of forgiveness, he noted that before giving the apostles the power to forgive others, Jesus first forgave them, and showed them his wounds.
“Forgiveness is born from wounds,” he said. “It is born when our wounds do not leave scars of hatred, but become the means by which we make room for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity, and forgiveness becomes the path to peace.”
When feelings of guilt or sadness seem overwhelming and at times when things are not going well, “we know where to look: to the wounds of Jesus, who is ever ready to forgive us with his infinite, wounded love,” Francis said.
Jesus, he said, “knows your wounds; he knows the wounds of your country, your people, your land!”
“They are wounds that ache, continually infected by hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive. My brother, my sister, Jesus suffers with you. He sees the wounds you carry within, and he desires to console and heal you; he offers you his wounded heart,” he said.
Pope Francis said Jesus gives people to forgive themselves, others, and their own history, and urged faithful to grant others an “amnesty of the heart,” asking that his visit would be an occasion for each person to experience forgiveness.
“May it be the right time for those of you who bear heavy burdens in your heart and long for them to be lifted so that you can breathe freely…And may it be a good time for all of you in this country who call yourselves Christians but engage in violence. The Lord is telling you: ‘Lay down your arms, embrace mercy,’” he said.
He also stressed the importance of community, noting that Jesus appeared and bestowed peace on the apostles as a group, saying, “There is no Christianity without community, just as there is no peace without fraternity.”
Before Jesus’s resurrection, the disciples had wanted a powerful messiah to defeat their enemies and work wonders and perform miracles, and who would make them “rich and famous,” the pope said, “yet those worldly desires left them empty-handed and robbed their community of peace, generating arguments and opposition.”
Christians today face the same danger, of wanting to be with others, “but to go our own way,” he said, noting that “in society, and even in the Church, we seek power, a career, our own ambitions” and end up hopeless and disappointed.
Yet thanks to the peace Jesus offered and the gift of the Holy Spirit, “they will no longer look at what divides them, but at what unites them. They will go out into the world no longer for themselves, but for others; not to gain attention, but to offer hope.”
Pope Francis also highlighted the importance of mission in the life of Christians, saying Jesus sent his apostles “to serve and to give his life for humanity, to show his mercy to each person and to seek out those who are far away.”
The apostles were sent “for everyone: not just for the righteous, but for everyone,” he said.
Francis closed his homily with an appeal for peace, saying, “Jesus says today to every family, community, ethnic group, neighborhood and city in this great country, ‘Peace be with you!’”
“May these words of our Lord resound in the silence of our hearts. Let us hear them addressed to us and let us choose to be witnesses of forgiveness, builders of community, people charged with a mission of peace in our world,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen