ROME – As Pope Francis heads to the war-torn African nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan this week, he will be traveling to countries where the church holds pride of place in civil society and has long been on the frontlines of relief efforts amid war, poverty, and natural disasters.

Francis will travel from Jan. 31-Feb. 5, stopping first in the DRC capital of Kinshasa, and then in the South Sudanese capital of Juba, where he will make an ecumenical visit alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Reverend lain Greenshields.

Originally slated to take place last July, the visit was postponed due to the pope’s ongoing knee troubles, which, since last May, often have forced him to use either a wheelchair or a cane.

His original itinerary also included a stop in the eastern Congolese city of Goma, where much of the fighting the country’s east is concentrated. That outing was cancelled due to an escalation of violence in the area in recent months. Italy’s former ambassador to the DRC, Luca Attanasio, was killed by militants along with his driver near Goma in 2021.

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Given the lengthy history each country has with armed conflict, peacebuilding and reconciliation will likely be key topics of the pope’s visit, which is evident from themes for each leg of the journey: “All Reconciled in Christ,” for Congo, and “I pray that all may be one,” for South Sudan.

Both countries are rich in natural resources, Congo in minerals and South Sudan in oil. Yet both are ravaged by protracted conflicts and, as a result, remain underdeveloped compared to their potential. Also in both nations, the Catholic Church playing a leading role in health and educational sectors, as well as efforts to build democracy and promote peace.

Leaders in the community

Christians make up most of the believing population in both Congo and South Sudan, with some 98 percent of Congo’s sprawling population of roughly 100 million adhering to Christianity, 50 percent of whom are Catholic.

In South Sudan, around 60.5 percent of the country’s 11 million people belong to some form of Christianity, with Catholicism and Anglicanism making up the vast majority. Catholics themselves represent roughly 52 percent of the overall population, making the ecumenical aspect of the pope’s visit of vital importance to locals.

In terms of sheer numbers, the Democratic Republic of Congo is projected to rank among the top five Catholic nations, and is set to become the largest French-speaking Catholic country in the world by 2050.

To date, the Congo remains the only place where a cardinal once served as the country’s de facto chief executive – the late Cardinal Laurent Monsengwo Pasinya, the former Archbishop of Kinshasa and a founding member of Pope Francis’s top council of cardinal advisors.

In the early 1990s, when the DRC, then called Zaire, was transitioning toward life without its previous ruler, Mobutu Sese Seko, a transitional “High Council of the Republic” was established and needed someone with strong moral authority and known for supporting independence to lead efforts in drafting a new constitution.

Since no one from the political class fit that bill at the time, Monsengwo, who died in 2021 and was serving as auxiliary bishop of Kisangani at the time, was tapped for that role, acting as a de facto national leader during the interim period. He served not only as president of the council, but also as transitional speaker of the national parliament in 1994.

Father Anselme Ludiga, a Congolese priest of the Diocese of Kalemie-Kirungu and former pastor of Saint Jean Marie Vianney parish in Kala who is currently studying in Rome, said there is a strong relationship between the government and the Congolese Bishops’ Conference, and the bishops are heavily involved in politics.

Speaking during a media roundtable ahead of the pope’s visit, Ludiga said the Catholic Church in Congo is “a political church,” and speaks out on every issue the government touches.

“We are a young democracy, so principles of democracy aren’t always respected and the church is very involved in this process,” he said, but said that at times this can go too far, and that the church “has entered too much into politics,” rarely issuing a statement or a document without some reference to the political situation.

In terms of political pressure at the pastoral level, “this is the strength of the Catholic Church in Congo,” Ludiga said, saying leaders of local communities, such as village mayors, are typically “the first benefactor of the parish,” meaning pastors know they’ll be heard when the speak out, but they also hesitate to say too much, speaking generally rather than issuing direct criticism.

“The church in Congo is politically powerful,” he said, noting that it also holds weight at an academic level, with one of its most prominent universities established by the Jesuit order.

He also praised the church’s enculturation into Congolese society, particularly with the 1988 approval of the Zaire Use, or “Congolese rite” of the Mass, which Ludiga said is rarely used, but was celebrated by Pope Francis during a Mass with the Congolese community in Rome after postponing his visit last year, and it will be celebrated by him again during his public Mass in Kinshasa.

Similarly, in South Sudan the Catholic Church is one of the leading providers of education and humanitarian assistance alongside other Christian communities. There is a close collaboration among Christian leaders in the country through the South Sudan Council of Churches in providing these services, meaning Christian leaders are often highly respected at the local level in the country, whose president Salva Kiir is Catholic, and which is home to hundreds of missionaries.

On the frontlines

With years, and, in the case of the DRC, decades of conflict tearing these countries apart, swaths of the population in each place are suffering from poverty and displacement, as well as hunger and a lack of education.

Speaking during a media roundtable ahead of the pope’s visit, Daniele Mazzone, Congo Country director for the AVSI Foundation, who is based in Goma, said that of Congo’s roughly 100 million citizens, more than 80 percent survive on less than $1.25 a day.

“Thirty percent of the population are in immediate need of humanitarian assistance,” Mazzone said, noting that the humanitarian crisis in the DRC, like the country’s war itself, “is one of the most complex and protracted in the entire world.”

The number of those in need is increasing annually, he said, noting that the figures have gone up every year, from 19 million in 2019, to 20 million in 2020, and 27 million in 2022. Mazzone said he expects the number of needy people in Congo to increase to 30 million this year, due mainly to the country’s precarious security situation.

In Goma itself, which sits near where much of the fighting in the DRC’s eastern region is concentrated, youth unemployment is at 80 percent, making young people especially vulnerable, he said, and most of the city’s population lives in poverty.

Boniface Ata Deagbo, executive secretary of Caritas Congo, said that the Catholic Church in the DRC is a big partner of the government, providing over 40 percent of health services, as well as assistance in education, agriculture, food security, and humanitarian aid to refugees and displaced.

In addition to the armed conflict in the country’s east, Deagbo said there are also problems at the government level, “The country is not well led, it’s not well-governed,” and corruption is a big problem that is compounding the country’s overall crisis.

When it comes to security, Mazzone said the recent attack and increased bombing in the area has led to tightened measures: they only travel by car and never walk anywhere, and if they go out to eat, they only go to restaurants that have security guards who check bags upon entry, and their personnel can no longer go to the border with Rwanda, because it has been deemed unsafe.

Earlier this month, an attack at a Pentecostal church in the eastern town of Kasindi that left 20 people dead stoked further fear into the local population.

“People are aware Pope Francis is coming, and they are happy about it,” Mazzone said, saying “They are full of hope” and believe the pope will bring “new effort among people to work for peace” at the level of the government, civil society, and among the churches.

“We think the pope might really succeed in bringing attention to this almost forgotten crisis,” he said.

Deagbo voiced hope that the pope’s visit would not only be an occasion to promote peace, but said it is also an opportunity “to do advocacy for good governance…poverty is high, and we can’t say it’s only due to security in eastern Congo, but also because of government issues, so I think that the presence of the Holy Father is a good moment to do advocacy about governance.”

Similarly, South Sudan has also been plagued by years of violent conflict and is still recovering from devastating floods last year that furthered food insecurity in the country.

Gino Barsella, the AVSI Foundation’s representative in South Sudan, said that more than 80 percent of population lives in rural areas and survives on less than $2 a day, with unemployment rates sitting at close to 15 percent.

10 percent of the population lacks access to basic sanitation, less than 50 percent of people have access to adequate healthcare services, and around 60 percent of South Sudanese are food insecure, Barsella said, saying people cultivate, “but they cultivate to survive, and cultivation depends on climate.”

This means they can survive but their nutrition is not what it should be,” he said, saying life expectancy, while going up, is only around 60 years for both men and women.

“More than seventy percent of the population are still illiterate,” he said, saying South Sudan is currently ranked the third most illiterate nation in the world.

Barsella said the country faces critical problems not just because of security issues and violence, but also because South Sudan’s political leadership is still composed of “the old military leadership” who took power at the time of independence, after their war with Sudan.

For this reason, a certain war-like mentality still exists in national leaders, “but with the help of a young generation of politicians and youth at all levels of society, things are gradually improving,” he said, saying, “generations of young politicians who did not fight” are bringing a fresh approach prioritizing peace and security.

Gabriel Yai Aropo, executive director of Caritas South Sudan, said there has been “emergency after emergency” in South Sudan, making recovery efforts difficult, but the church is active on the frontlines providing necessary aid.

Around one million people are in high food insecurity, he said, saying Caritas is active at the national level in providing food and agriculture assistance, as well as shelter and in promoting peacebuilding activities.

Pope Francis’s visit, he said, “is going to be a blessing for South Sudan and will put an end to this suffering which is fighting, if our leaders listen to the pope and come together and work together to bring peace to the people.”

Awaiting Pope Francis

Sister Orla Treacy, a missionary in South Sudan for nearly 20 years with the Loreto Sisters, said there is extra excitement among the people for the pope’s visit after its postponement last year.

In South Sudan we have learned to live with disappointment and with changes, so I think when the first trip was cancelled, we almost didn’t expect it to be rescheduled,” but since the new year, “people are talking more and people are coming together more, I definitely feel that there’s a greater sense of excitement,” she said.

Treacy, based in Rumbek, is head of the Loreto Rumbek Mission in Maker Kuei, South Sudan, where she oversees a secondary boarding school for girls, a co-educational primary school and a women and children’s healthcare facility.

Speaking to Crux, Treacy said people are already flocking to Juba ahead of the pope’s arrival later this week, and she herself is leading a group of young people from their compound on a 9-day pilgrimage walk from Rumbek to Juba for the papal visit, offering “a message of peace and unity” to every village they pass.

The group of around 70 youngsters come from different states, different ethnicities, and different church groups, some of whom are Catholic and some Anglican, meaning their very presence among the people they meet is an embodiment of the theme for the papal visit, that “all may be one.”

“This is becoming a very important theme for all of us, and the young people want to model it as they move,” she said.

Speaking to Crux, Paolo Impagliazzo, secretary general of the Sant’Egidio Community, an ecclesial movement dedicated to social justice which is active in South Sudan, stressed the importance of the ecumenical aspect of the pope’s visit to the country alongside Welby and Greenshields.

Ecumenically, churches are very involved at the grassroots level, meaning that “when conflict among communities erupts somewhere in South Sudan, the ecumenical bodies, the churches, are the first ones responding and trying to reconcile the communities,” he said.

For this reason, “the ecumenical visit is something really, really important,” Impagliazzo said, saying Christian churches in South Sudan “already a key player in stabilizing and bringing about peace,” and this visit will likely strengthen those efforts.

Likewise, Barsella said the ecumenical aspect of the pope’s visit is “something natural,” and that for the people of South Sudan, Christians historically “were all united in the struggle,” meaning their main problems are not religious, but ethnic disputes, and the various churches “brought people together ethnically and religiously.”

Noting that Pope Francis often praises the contribution of local women in the countries he visits, Treacy voiced hope that the pope would bring up women’s issues when he visits South Sudan, “not even for our younger women, but for our older women,” many of whom are in polygamous marriages and struggle with feeling like they have a place in the church.

“Younger women, I suppose they’re more discerning, but I think for me in terms of the church, I’d love a message for the older women, so they can feel that the church and Jesus models something different to culture, and models something of inclusion and reconciliation and peace and dignity for women as well,” she said.

Elizabeth Anon, program officer and gender advisor for AVSI in South Sudan, said women are “always behind in terms of development and education,” and that most children who are out of school are girls.

The church is very involved with the issue of gender in the country, and often helps young women who run away from their families to escape forced marriages, preferring to finish their education before deciding on the rest of their lives.

In South Sudan, “There’s a lot of gender discrimination,” Anon said, saying, “we are hoping that the pope can talk about something on gender, especially gender, that’s something I’d be grateful for.”

Both Impagliazzo and Treacy spoke of the important role missionaries play in South Sudan, running projects in the educational, healthcare, and humanitarian fields, often at the risk of their own lives and safety.

“If I had two minutes with the pope, that’s the conversation I would want to have with him,” Treacy said, noting that there are some 500 religious missionaries currently serving in South Sudan, 100 of whom are in her own diocese of Rumbek.

In the past few years alone, “three of our sisters were killed, a sister was raped, they’ve been attacked, our brothers have been attacked, our priests have been attacked, and that’s not just missionaries, also our own brothers as priests, our national brothers who live here and this is their home, they also suffer,” she said.

Dealing with these threats and the challenges of enculturation in a society that often holds different values, ideologies, and expectations is difficult, she said, saying her question to the pope would be, “how do you nurture the weary missionary?”

“How do we encourage ourselves as missionaries to continue to love those we serve in the mission, even though their culture says a very loud, different message every day? How do we continue to push a message of hope, of love, of reconciliation in the midst of all of this?” she said, saying the task of reconciliation in a culture that prizes strength over humility and perceived weakness is their most challenging job as missionaries, but also the most important.

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen