Revd Fr Martin Browne, OSB
Official of Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity


The arrival of Pope Francis in South Sudan on 3 February marks the beginning of an unprecedented Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage. When the Holy Father visits Juba, the capital of South Sudan, he will be accompanied by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Right Revd Iain Greenshields. As well as its obvious importance for the people of South Sudan and the political and social situation of their country, the pilgrimage is of major ecumenical significance. It will be the first time ever that a Bishop of Rome has made such a joint visit with Anglican and (Reformed) Presbyterian church leaders.

Almost two-thirds of the population of South Sudan is Christian and the level of cooperation and fellowship between the different Christian traditions has traditionally been very strong. The Sudan Council of Churches [SCC] was founded by Catholic Bishop Augustino Baroni and Anglican Bishop Oliver Allison in 1965, before the establishment of South Sudan as a separate state. In the almost 60 years since then, in the context of conflict, bloodshed and the complete breakdown of civil society, the SCC and its successor, the South Sudan Council of Churches [SSCC], has worked to promote Christian Unity and solidarity.

The painful situation in their land drew the churches closer to one another in both practical and prophetic ways. During the horrors of the civil wars since the 1980s, when all other structures and organisations collapsed or left, church leaders remained close to their people. When speaking of ‘the Church’, South Sudanese people were more likely to be referring to the joint witness of the various Christian communities than to any one denomination or tradition and church leaders often understood themselves as shepherds of the entire Christian flock. In an example that is far from unique, one Anglican bishop recalls that when his Catholic counterpart had to be absent from the diocese for any reason, he would telephone his Anglican brother before leaving and ask him to “look after my people while I am away”.

The shared concern of Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and successive Moderators of the Church of Scotland (who hold office for just one year) for the situation in South Sudan is a natural reflection of the tradition of profound ecumenical cooperation in the country. They have long desired to visit the country together. The visit was promised during a spiritual retreat held at the Casa Santa Marta in 2019, in which South Sudanese political leaders committed to working together for the good of their people. Underlining the ecumenical dimension, Pope Francis has spoken of the importance to him of contributing to the peace and reconciliation process in South Sudan, “not alone, 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”.

Despite the undertakings given during the 2019 retreat in the Vatican, and the dramatic imploring gesture of Pope Francis in kissing the feet of the country’s leaders, the situation in South Sudan remains volatile. Political leaders, nearly all of whom profess the Christian faith, have been slow to work towards peace-building. In their joint witness, the three church leaders want to help re-energise that process. During the Ecumenical Prayer in Juba on Saturday 4 February, Moderator Greenshields will pray that the pilgrimage “will enhance in all of us the spirit of change; to empower us all to seek hope, reconciliation, forgiveness, justice, and unity in and through our Lord Jesus Christ”.

The traditionally deep unity among the Christian communities in South Sudan has become somewhat more fragile in recent times, with increased tribal tensions emerging in and between churches. The three church leaders, by visiting together as Ecumenical Peace Pilgrims, want to help the Christians of South Sudan to recover and build on their vocation to be strong visible instruments of reconciliation and unity. The pilgrimage of the Pope, the Archbishop and the Moderator is therefore an exercise of the Lord’s mandate to Peter to “strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22, 32). That Pope Francis is undertaking this Petrine task jointly with Archbishop Welby and Moderator Greenshields is of enormous ecumenical significance.


L'Osservatore Romano, 30 January 2023