He did not want to give up Africa, Francesco. For a year the Pope has suffered from a knee problem that makes it difficult for him to walk and often forces him to a wheelchair. Last July he canceled the long-awaited trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, generating a wave of disappointment in the two countries. “He won’t come again,” they said. And instead Jorge Mario Bergoglio, 86, is leaving today for a tiring but indispensable six-day trip: in sub-Saharan Africa all the main lines of his pontificate are intertwined.
We are talking about those geographical and existential “peripheries” that Jorge Mario Bergoglio has placed at the center of attention. It is the twenty-first time that a Pope has flown to Africa, starting with Paul VI’s trip to Uganda in 1969, but the Latin American Pope, heir to the Jesuit missionaries, has a particular affinity with the countries of the “global south”. “There is a collective unconscious for which Africa should be exploited”, he recently told the Spanish Comboni magazine black world: the independence of many former colonies has been “halfway: they give them economic independence from the ground up, but they keep the subsoil to exploit it”. To the ancient powers, China has now been added.
The Pope’s trip to the Congo
In the former Belgian Congo (from Tuesday to Friday) and in South Sudan (from Friday to Sunday), Francis then touches two relevant “pieces” of that “world war” that he has been denouncing for some time. Postmodern conflict, in the South and above all in the North-East of the first country, with the multiplication of private armed groups, ancient ethnic war in the second country, in both cases clashes ultimately linked to the exploitation of the rich underground resources, copper , gold, cobalt, diamonds. Bergoglio has given up on a stop initially planned in Goma, in North Kivu, not far from where the Italian ambassador Luca Attanasio was killed. “They wouldn’t do anything to me but throw a bomb into the stadium and kill a lot of people”, said the Pope, who will meet war displaced people at the nunciature in Kinshasa.
And the other stop in South Sudan
As for South Sudan, out of a population of 12 million people, two civil wars have caused 400,000 deaths, two and a half million refugees in neighboring countries and two million internally displaced persons. “Too many weapons have arrived and are present in the country”, he tells Republic Christian Carlassare, the youngest Italian bishop, a Comboni missionary: shot in the knees in 2021, today he still leads the diocese of Rumbek and these days he is taking a group of young people of different ethnic groups on pilgrimage on foot to meet the Pope. He trusts that Francis will help “disarm the hearts”. The community of Sant’Egidio, which has known the country since well before independence, in 2011, set up a negotiating table, the Rome initiative, which aims to involve groups excluded from previous agreements, defuse violence and lay the foundations for building an inclusive state. Strengthened by these Catholic presences in the country, the Pope hopes to influence the peace process in the wake of the sensational gesture he made in 2019: he had invited allies/enemies, protagonists of the civil war, to the Vatican, Salva Kiir and Riek Macharand surprisingly knelt kissing their feet and imploring them to lay down their weapons.
Two special travel companions
Francesco does not travel alone. In the coming days, as already then in Rome, I’m with him the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welbyand the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields. The three Christian leaders want to bear witness to ecumenical unity in a country where Christians, the majority denomination, wage war against each other. A message which, in the Pope’s intentions, should spread well beyond the South Sudanese borders. If the north of the continent has a Muslim majority, in sub-Saharan Africa Christianity has increased from 9% of the population in 1900 to 57% today. Often living in imaginative ways with traditional religions. Protestant churches and evangelical sects are spreading, but Catholicism is also increasing every year, in Africa as in Asia, while it dries up in Europe and remains stable in the Americas. The World Christian Database estimates that in 2050 African Catholics will make up 32% of the Catholic Church. They are the future, and Pope Francis cannot give them up.