In what was titled an Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage, Pope Francis visited South Sudan from 3 to 5 February, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, His Grace Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Right Revd Iain Greenshields. The Prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Kurt Koch, also participated.
This Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage was the first time that a Pope has undertaken such a visit with Anglican and Reformed leaders. It was first announced in 2017 and further discussed during the retreat for South Sudanese leaders in the Vatican in 2019. The visit was planned for July 2022, but was postponed owing to the Pope’s knee injury. In a video message at that time, Pope Francis said that, “we remain confident and hopeful that we shall be able to meet as soon as possible”.
As well as engagements with their respective church communities, the three leaders participated in several joint events during the pilgrimage. In his first address – to the political and civil leaders and the diplomatic corps – Pope Francis underlined the ecumenical nature of the visit: “I have come with two brothers, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. … Together, stretching out our hands, we present ourselves to you and to this people in the name of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.”
South Sudan has Africa’s worst refugee crisis, with up to four million young people displaced. The three leaders met with approximately 2,500 of these internally displaced persons on Saturday 4 February. The meeting included prayers by the Moderator and the Archbishop and testimonies from three young people. Repeating his call for an end to conflict, Pope Francis explained that this means “embracing the marvellous risk of knowing and accepting those who are different, discovering the beauty of a reconciled fraternity and experiencing the thrilling challenge of freely shaping your own future along with that of the entire community”.
More than 50,000 people attended Saturday evening’s Ecumenical Prayer for Peace. After the Gospel, the Archbishop Welby and the Moderator introduced the common Profession of Faith. Before the blessing, Pope Francis spoke about the unique ecumenical situation in South Sudan. “In this country, Christian communities have been deeply committed to promoting processes of reconciliation. I thank you for this radiant testimony of faith born of the realization, expressed not only in words but also in deeds, that prior to any historical divisions there remains one unchanging fact, namely, that we are Christians; we belong to Christ. It is a beautiful thing that, amid situations of great conflict, those who profess the Christian faith have never fragmented the people but have been, and continue to be, a factor of unity. This ecumenical tradition of South Sudan is a precious treasure, an act of praise for the name of Jesus and an act of love for the Church his bride, an example to all for the advancement of Christian unity.”
During the General Audience of 8 February in the Paul VI hall in the Vatican, Pope Francis offered some reflections on the ecumenical dimension of his visit to South Sudan. Speaking of having undertaken the visit jointly with the Archbishop and the Moderator, he said, “we went together to bear witness that it is possible, and a duty, to collaborate in diversity, especially if one shares faith in Jesus Christ”. He noted the significance of the motto for the visit, “I pray for all to be one” (cf. Jn 17:21), and looked back in particular on the Ecumenical Prayer for Peace. “Together we listened to the Word of God, together we raised prayers of praise, supplication and intercession. In a reality as highly conflictual as that of South Sudan, this sign is fundamental, and not to be taken for granted, because unfortunately there are those who abuse the name of God to justify violence and oppression.”
Photos © Servizio Fotografico | Vatican Media