VATICAN CITY — Affirming Catholics in their faith, invoking the Lord’s peace in the face of bloody conflicts and resisting ideological colonization are just some of the priorities Pope Francis is expected to highlight when he visits three African countries at the end of this month.
The Holy Father will embark on a six-day visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic on Nov. 25, during which he is scheduled to visit a mosque in a conflict zone, call in on a refugee camp and visit a slum district.
His first visit to the African continent as pope will include 18 speeches and four public Masses. The Catholic population has increased by 238% since 1980, and the number of priests has doubled.
“He will reassure us of his interest and concern for the young Church that is growing in Africa,” said Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda. “He’s going to encourage the population and express his interest in the continent.”
But his visit is likely to be most memorable for its last leg — if it goes ahead — when he becomes the first pontiff to enter a war zone. Pope John Paul II visited Nicaragua in 1983, during the war between the Sandinistas and the Contras, but he did not visit a conflict area. Pope Francis will fly to Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, Nov. 29, where a civil war continues to be waged between the mostly-Muslim Séléka rebel coalition and government forces. The conflict broke out when the rebels seized power in a coup in 2013, prompting lethal reprisals by Christian militias known as anti-Balaka.
The majority of the Muslim fighters are mercenaries from neighboring Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo who wish to conquer the former French colony, said Father Hervé Hubert Koyassambia-Kozondo of the Diocese of Bangui. “Their aim is to destroy all the country’s administrative capability,” he told reporters in Rome Oct. 30.
The Pope expressed “strong worry” about continued violence in the country during his Angelus address Nov. 1, and he hinted the conflict might lead him to cancel the trip. A day after his address, armed men killed two men and three women in the capital, causing hundreds to flee their homes.
“His visit to CAR in this situation is very significant,” said Archbishop Odama, who believes the Pope will use it to send a “very strong message” to the continent. “He will say, ‘We cannot continue with the conflicts, where so many are displaced, suffering, especially the weakest, children, their mothers, the elderly. All of them are suffering,’” the archbishop said.
The Pope’s 11th apostolic voyage outside Italy begins in Nairobi, Kenya, a country where the people hope the Pope will “reinforce the faith and help us to feel close to the universal Church,” said Bishop James Maria Wainaina Kungu of Muranga. The trip will be broadcast on EWTN.
The Catholic Church provides a “central role” in providing education (more than 25% of all schooling) and health care (30%) in the country, Bishop Kungu said, adding that the Pope is also likely to address the problems of Islamist violence, which has entered the country through its porous borders, especially with Somalia.
Al-Shabab militants have been attacking northern areas of the country for the past few years to “create a Muslim-only zone,” Bishop Kungu said. They seek to “serve the interests of the expansion of Islam,” rather than pursuing any material gain, and are hoping Christians and others will abandon the region so it is “just left for Muslims.” They want to “give a sense that the country is unable to protect itself,” he said.
While in Kenya, the Pope will hold separate audiences with civil authorities, interreligious and ecumenical leaders, clergy, religious and seminarians. On the second day of his visit there, he is to celebrate Mass at the campus of the University of Nairobi — the “centerpiece of the visit,” according to Bishop Dominic Kimengich of Lodwar, chairman of Kenya’s bishops’ liturgical commission. “It will be like a model for all the Masses that are celebrated around the country,” he said in a Nov. 4 communiqué.
The Pope is also scheduled to visit the United Nations’ Environment Program office in the city, where he is expected to meet with environmental leaders and plant a tree. He may also visit a Muslim area in the city. The following morning, Nov. 27, he will be driven to the Jesuit-run Kagemi parish, one of the largest slums in Kenya, located on the outskirts of the capital.
Our Lady of Charity Sister Jane Joan Kimathi, who works to rehabilitate prostitutes in Nairobi, told the Register that Kagemi is a casualty of colonial planning that proved to be ill-suited to cope with the rapid urbanization that followed the nation’s independence.
“Nairobi’s slums make up over 50% of the population, and yet occupy only 5% of the total residential land, giving them just 1% of the total land area,” she pointed out. “Kagemi likely has over 100,000 residents,” belonging to various religions.
Sister Jane said the parish has different activities to help women and girls combat alcohol, drugs, prostitution, trafficking and HIV/AIDS. Residents will be able to present to the Holy Father their handicrafts, she said, including liturgical vestments the Pope will use, and they will also perform an African dance for him. The residents “will leave a big impact on the slum women, who will perhaps have a chance of changing their lifestyle or even their beliefs,” said Sister Jane, who has seen women not only reject a life of prostitution, but also enter the Church and become religious.
After meeting youth and Kenya’s bishops, the Pope will leave for Entebbe Airport in Uganda’s capital, Kampala, Nov. 27. He will be the third pope to visit the country, in addition to St. John Paul II and Blessed Paul VI, making it the most-visited African country by a pope.
“This shows God’s love for the [people],” said Archbishop Odama. “Our country is really blessed with natural resources; her natural beauty is so enormous; and so, with all this now, we should be certain of God’s love for us and be aware of the consequences of: How much do we do in response to God’s love?”
The archbishop said that response should be translated in “concrete terms,” by having a “stronger faith, a missionary spirit, going out to our neighbors surrounding us — also to Europe and the U.S.”
On arrival in the afternoon, the Pope is to address civic leaders and diplomats and will meet a group of catechists and teachers. Archbishop Odama said the central focus of his visit to Uganda will be to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the canonization of Uganda’s 22 martyrs, converts who were executed between November 1885 and January 1887.
The 22 were canonized in 1964, but Francis was unable to visit Uganda last year on the 50th anniversary due to schedule conflicts. The Pope will celebrate a Mass in their honor on Nov. 28, and many preparations have been made at the “Catholic Shrine of the Martyrs” in Namugongo, where the Mass will take place, including the creation of 22 grottos, one for each of the martyrs and containing their life stories.
In Uganda, Francis will encounter a country where political integration is still lacking, said Father Herman-Joseph Kalungi of Uganda’s Masaka Diocese, and poverty is manifested in “hunger, illness and a poor medical system coping with many infections that are uncontrolled.” He said a “great part of the population don’t have the opportunity to go to school” and that the Church “contributes much” to overcome these challenges. He also said “Pentecostalism and syncretism” are further challenges for the country, but, generally, relations with Protestants and Muslims are good.
Central African Republic
On Sunday, Nov. 29, the Pope will leave for Bangui, spending just a day and a half there, where he will celebrate two Masses: first in the city’s cathedral and then an open-air Mass in the city’s stadium the following day. He will also hear the confessions of young people and meet the city’s Muslim community in the central mosque of Koudoukou.
According to Father Koyassambia-Kozondo, security is the foremost challenge in CAR, although he believes the Pope’s personal safety is not at risk. “Many people are armed with bad intentions,” he said. “It’s difficult to bring peace and stability; each week there’s another incident.”
But aside from the conflict, he said “polygamy is a big problem,” as is the “relativism of religion” and poor education (conflict means few children attend school). He said about 36% of this mostly-Christian nation is made up of Catholics; Protestants are the most populous population, and about 10% are Muslim.
He said people are “very enthusiastic about the visit” and are hoping the “Pope will find a better situation” when he arrives.
All three countries consider “ideological colonization” to be a significant threat to their sovereignty and are hoping Francis addresses the issue. Father Kalungi said although most Ugandans view abstinence and fidelity to be the best deterrents against AIDS, there is “still a lot of pressure to promote the use of condoms,” and this pressure mainly “comes from outside.”
To give an example of imposing Western secular values, the priest referred to a law passed by President Yoweri Museveni in 2014 against homosexuality, which was later revoked due to pressure from the outside. “The Pope will talk about ideological colonization, but it will be for external ears,” he said.
Archbishop Odama said the United Nations should be defending “the right of every nation, even in the most delicate moments.” He added that some ideological colonization involves threatening to withdraw the support for AIDS and malaria treatment if certain agendas are not accepted. “That is very cruel, to be frank — because you’re punishing a sick person [at the expense of] your own ideology. This sick person must accept your own way of thinking. It doesn’t make sense.”
Ugandans are also hoping he will address other internal political concerns, such as the ambition of politicians and corruption.
“Many are expecting him to address these issues,” said Father Kalungi, “but they’re not expecting miracles.”
Edward Pentin is the Register's Rome correspondent.