NEW YORK – Pope Francis’s current trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan should reminds Catholics of their responsibility to stand beside the millions struggling with poverty in African nations, according to the leader of the U.S. church’s overseas development arm.

“The Holy Father’s visit calls us to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in these countries, and work tirelessly for a world where all can thrive,” Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services said in a Jan. 31 statement, adding that the organization is inspired by the “pope’s message of compassion, reconciliation, and harmony.”

Pope Francis’s trip to the African nations began yesterday and lasts through Feb. 5. Catholic Relief Services has a presence in both countries, each of which faces its own set of immense challenges that include violent conflicts, poverty and enduring humanitarian crises.

Exploitation of natural resources, particularly mineral resources, in the Congo have led to corruption and conflict opposed to economic growth. That reality is evident in the Congo’s ranking of 153 out of 191 countries and territories in the 2021/2022 United Nations Human Development Index.

Armed conflict has left over 5.5 million people displaced in the Congo. There are also a number of infrastructure needs – including improvements to roads, energy sources, water and sanitation networks – and the government is rife with corruption. All of these factors combined have resulted in a situation where Congolese communities face numerous health, economic and security challenges.

According to the Catholic Relief Services Congo page, the organization’s presence there works with church partners, government agencies and other humanitarian actors to address both short term emergency and long term development challenges. These programming areas include transformative health, nutrition, water, sanitation, hygiene and agriculture.

Like the Congo, people in South Sudan have suffered from decades of armed conflict that have left millions of people displaced, and/or living in underdeveloped and impoverished situations. A drought in Eastern Africa has also had an outsized impact on the wellbeing of people in the country. There are more than 5.5 million people in South Sudan facing a severe hunger crisis.

“Hundreds of thousands of children are acutely malnourished and need urgent nutritional support,” the Catholic Relief Services South Sudan page highlights.

The organization’s work in South Sudan also attempts to provide short term emergency relief and promote long term development. One focus is feeding hungry people impacted by the drought and the ongoing conflict, and working with community members to improve water and hygiene systems. It also collaborates with local partners to support peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.

“Both countries have felt the impacts of protracted conflict and climate change, resulting in some of the biggest humanitarian crises in the world,” Callahan said. “Massive displacement and skyrocketing hunger have caused tremendous suffering.”

Callahan continued that he hopes Pope Francis’s visit to the two nations is a reminder to Catholics worldwide of this struggle, and their duty to help.

“We can only hope his visit reminds the rest of the world of the plight of the millions of people struggling with poverty and of our responsibility, as Catholics, to stand beside them,” he said.

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