ROME – On the same day he was supposed to leave for a highly-anticipated trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, Pope Francis instead sent a message to citizens of the two countries urging them to work toward reconciliation.
In a video published July 2, the pope said he was “greatly disappointed” at having to postpone “this long-awaited and much-desired visit. But we remain confident and hopeful that we shall be able to meet as soon as possible.”
Earlier this year, the Vatican announced that Francis would be traveling to the Congolese cities of Kinshasa and Goma July 2-5, and that he would make an ecumenical pilgrimage to the South Sudanese capital of Juba July 5-7, alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
However, less than a month before the trip was set to take place, the Vatican issued a statement saying the trip would be postponed due to the pope’s ongoing knee troubles.
The decision to postpone, the Vatican said, was made “at the request of his doctors, and in order not to jeopardize the results of the therapy that he is undergoing for his knee.”
Pope Francis apologized, saying he felt “great sorrow for having had to postpone this trip, which means so much to me.” On that occasion he prayed that “with the help of God and medical attention, I will be able to be with you as soon as possible.”
Francis has been experiencing knee pain for months and began using a wheelchair in early May in order to rest his knee as he undergoes therapy. Recently, the pope has been seen sometimes walking with the assistance of a cane.
Despite postponing the pope’s trip to Africa, the Vatican has announced that it is moving forward with plans for a visit to Canada later this month, where he is expected to apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the historical abuse of Indigenous children at church-run residential schools.
In his video, Pope Francis assured the people of Congo and South Sudan that they “have been that much closer to my heart” since the trip was postponed, and that he carries with him “the pain that you have endured for all too long.”
He pointed to the “exploitation, violence and insecurity” experienced by the people of the Congo, especially those who live in the eastern regions of the country, “where armed conflicts continue to cause much intense suffering, aggravated by the indifference and the convenience of many.”
Francis also pointed to the ongoing national peace process in South Sudan, and the “plea for peace arising from its people who, weary of violence and poverty, await concrete results from the process of national reconciliation.”
“I would like to contribute to that process, not alone,” he said, “but by making an ecumenical pilgrimage together with two dear brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland,” both of whom also postponed their visits to South Sudan this month.
As the people of Congo and South Sudan wait for the pope’s visit to be rescheduled, Francis urged them to “not let yourselves be robbed of hope!”
“Think, you who are so dear to me, of how much more you are precious and beloved in the eyes of God, who never disappoints those who put their hope in him!” he said.
He said the people of each nation have “a great mission,” beginning with their respective political leadership. This mission, he said, “is that of turning a page in order to blaze new trails, new paths of reconciliation and forgiveness, of serene coexistence and of development.”
“It is a mission that you must take up together. A mission that entails looking to the future, looking to the many young people in your lands, so rich in promise and yet so troubled, in order to offer them a brighter future,” he said.
Youth dream and deserve to see their dreams come true and to experience peace, he said. “For their sake, above all, it is necessary to lay down arms, to overcome all resentment, and to write new pages of fraternity.”
Pope Francis closed his video message telling the people of Congo and South Sudan that the tears they shed and the prayers they utter “are not in vain,” but that “the consolation of God will come.”
“Even now, as I look forward to meeting you, I ask that God’s peace fill your hearts,” he said, saying his prayers and his desire to “see your faces, to feel at home in your lively Christian communities, to embrace all of you with my presence and to bless your lands,” are becoming “all the more intense.”
“I send you my heartfelt blessing and I ask all of you, please, to continue to pray for me,” he said, adding, “see you soon!”
No dates have yet been announced for when the pope’s trip to Congo and South Sudan will be rescheduled.
Since he was unable to travel to the countries as planned, the pope sent his Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, on a pastoral visit to the two nations from July 1-8.
Although the Vatican did not publish an itinerary for Parolin’s visit, he was expected to meet with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi Saturday morning, the day after his arrival in Kinshasa. He is also slated to meet with Congolese Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde and sign an agreement between the Congolese government and the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Congo (CENCO) Saturday afternoon.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen