ROME – Speaking on Thursday to the highest civil and ecclesial authorities of South Sudan who are in Rome attending an “ecumenical retreat” hosted by the heads of the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion, Pope Francis delivered a warning: God and their people are watching, he said, calling for an end to the “fires of war.”
“He looks at us with love, he asks something, he forgives something and he gives us a mission,” Francis said. “He has put great trust in us by choosing us to be his co-workers in the creation of a more just world.”
Among those present were President Salva Kiir Mayardit and Vice-President Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, who for the past five years were the leading faces of two sides of a conflict fueled by corruption, tribalism and the country’s meager wealth. The two have agreed to form a government in accord with the terms of the “Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan,” and will take office May 12.
Ending Thursday’s event, Francis greeted several of the Sudanese leaders by kissing their feet, effectively urging them to recall the way Christ led the apostles in a spirit of service and humility.
The pope began his remarks by quoting Jesus’ first words to the Apostles, “Peace be with you,” urging the leaders to leave differences aside and to work together in service of their people.
“I offer that same greeting to you, who come from a situation of great suffering, for yourselves and your people, a people sorely tried by the consequences of conflicts,” Francis said, speaking of a bloody civil war that left 400,000 casualties in one of the world’s poorest countries.
“Peace is the first gift that the Lord brought us, and the first commitment that leaders of nations must pursue,” the pontiff said. “Peace is the fundamental condition for ensuring the rights of each individual and the integral development of an entire people.”
The pontiff minced no words when he told the Sudanese leadership that they will be held accountable by God, who entrusted them much and asks much of them.
“[God] will demand an account of our service and our administration, our efforts on behalf of peace and the well-being of the members of our communities, especially the marginalized and those most in need,” Francis said. “In other words, he will ask us to render an account not only of our own lives, but the lives of others as well.”
Also present were representatives of the South Sudanese Council of Churches and Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury, all of whom took part in the April 10-11 spiritual retreat the pope closed on Thursday afternoon.
“We are all aware that this meeting is something altogether special and, in some sense, unique, since it is neither an ordinary bilateral or diplomatic meeting between the Pope and Heads of State, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities,” Francis said.
The words “spiritual retreat,” he added, suggest a gathering in a secluded place, with an experience marked by “interior recollection, trusting prayer, deep reflection and encounters of reconciliation, so as to bear good fruits for ourselves and, as a consequence, for the communities to which we belong.”
The people both politicians and religious leaders are called to serve, Francis said, belong to God, and each one of those present should ask themselves: “What does the Lord want me to forgive and what in my attitudes does he want me to change? What is my mission and the task that God entrusts to me for the good of his people?”
Those in positions of leadership, the pontiff said, are also part of the people of God but were given the responsibility to serve.
According to the CIA Factbook, almost 2 million South Sudanese have sought refuge in neighboring countries since the current conflict began in December 2013. Another 1.96 million South Sudanese are internally displaced as of August 2017.
“I want to assure all your fellow citizens of my spiritual closeness, especially the refugees and the sick, who have remained in the country with great expectations and bated breath, awaiting the outcome of this historic day,” Francis said on Thursday in Santa Marta, the residence on Vatican grounds where he lives and where the retreat took place.
The pontiff also had words of comfort for the millions who have lost family members, to the children and the elderly, the men and women who have suffered on account of the conflicts “that have spawned so much death, hunger, hurt and tears.”
“We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace,” he said. “I think constantly of these suffering souls and I pray that the fires of war will finally die down, so that they can return to their homes and live in serenity.”