Precious Periphery: Pope Francis’ Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage to South Sudan

NEWS ANALYSIS: Five reasons the Holy See prioritized this journey.

Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the N'djili International Airport in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on January 31, 2023. - Pope Francis landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, hailing his beautiful trip to Africa as he comes bearing a message of peace to the conflict-torn nation, before heading to troubled neighbour South Sudan.
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at the N'djili International Airport in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), on January 31, 2023. - Pope Francis landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, hailing his beautiful trip to Africa as he comes bearing a message of peace to the conflict-torn nation, before heading to troubled neighbour South Sudan. (photo: Alexis Huguet / AFP/Getty)

Pope Francis is keeping his promise to South Sudan.

A major reason why he is traveling to the impoverished, war-torn African country Thursday is because he assured President Salva Kiir that if Kiir and his political rivals forged a unity government committed to peace — which they did in January 2020 — then the Holy Father, together with leaders from the Church of England and Church of Scotland, would strive to come in person, to encourage the world’s newest nation, where Christians and Catholics comprise the largest faith.

The idea was first invoked by the South Sudan Council of Churches (SSCC), a prominent ecumenical group that visited Rome in 2016 to present the nation’s heartbreaking plight to Francis. SSCC was founded in 1965 by Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian leaders — three faith traditions that have collaborated continuously since, overcoming centuries-long reciprocal excommunication.

To fathom the historic nature of the upcoming Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage to South Sudan, and how it exemplifies Francis’s diplomatic practice, five reasons the Holy See prioritized this journey are worth exploring.

Map of South Sudan
The South Sudanese Civil War was a multi-sided civil war in South Sudan between forces of the government and opposition forces.(Photo: Screenshot)

Promise Made, Promise Kept

Who can forget the sight of Francis dropping to his knees to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s top political leaders? The Pope made this unexpected gesture to the shock of everyone in the room at a retreat convened at Santa Marta on April 11, 2019.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, leader of the Church of England and “first among equals” of the global Anglican Communion, was there and recalled: “Tears were running down every face there, including the BBC cameraman,” as they witnessed this act of Christian supplication.

President Kiir and his nemesis, former and present Vice President Riek Machar, were among those singled out for Francis’ “kiss of peace.” Francis nearly prostrated himself before these secular leaders to express his profound request that they unite and overcome political differences to focus on the good of the nation.

Father Barthelemy Bazemo, of the Society of the Missionaries of Africa and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, explained the long conflict and significance of these figures to the Register: “The journey of South Sudan to self-rule has been a rocky and painful experience.”

“After the brutal civil wars [between Sudan’s Muslim-majority North and Christian-majority South] of 1955-1972 and 1983-2005, the referendum of January 2011 paved the way for South Sudan’s political independence,” he said.

Father Bazemo continued, “Unfortunately, the euphoria of that momentous achievement would be short-lived when power struggles between President Kiir and Vice President Machar over unresolved issues of oil revenues, ethnic representation, and citizenship laws precipitated unprecedented political instability that plagued its citizens since December 2013.”

Kiir is a Dinka, the country’s largest ethnic group, while Machar is from the second-largest community, the Nuer. Their rivalry mutated into ethnic-based violence that spread destruction across the perilously poor country between 2013 and 2018.

Machar wasn’t even living in South Sudan when he attended the 2019 retreat. He flew in from Khartoum, Sudan, because, he said, he feared being killed in his home country.

As a result of the renewed bonds formed in Rome and multilateral incentives, Kiir and Machar formed a unity government in February 2020, which has held. Evidence of progress, despite setbacks, include the recent creation of the nation’s first unified security forces.

First Ecumenical Pilgrimage

Longtime Church adviser and former missionary John Ashworth has spent some 40 years working in South Sudan. He confirms Kiir, a churchgoing Catholic, was “very moved” by Pope Francis’ challenge in Rome: “May the whole-hearted search for peace resolve disputes, may love conquer hatred, and may revenge be disarmed by forgiveness.”

But, Ashworth cautioned, Kiir is buffeted by competing interests that have benefitted richly from relentless conflict, as well as the predatory agendas of neighboring countries. Few close observers have faith in the political class.

“This is not a papal visit, but an ecumenical pilgrimage. Keep remembering that,” Ashworth told the Register.

In South Sudan, Francis will be joined by Welby, as well as the Church of Scotland’s international ambassador, known as its moderator, Presbyterian Rev. Iain Greenshields. The Pope called it an “ecumenical journey of peace” in his Sunday Angelus on Jan. 29.

Bringing together Catholic, Episcopalian and Presbyterian leaders meant aggregating the only organizations representing the beleaguered South Sudanese people — some 6.7 million of the 11 million population is Christian. A little more than 600,000 (around 6%) is Muslim. The remaining population is primarily traditional animism.

It also means presenting a unifying alternative to the endless cycles of violence the elite seem incapable of breaking.

Christian bishops in South Sudan are far more respected than political actors, who are blamed by citizens for violence, according to the U.S. Institute of Peace’s “The Religious Landscape in South Sudan” (2019).

On a scale of importance to the peace process, religious actors and institutions are described as very important (83%) or important (16%) — near-unanimous affirmation.

Much like the invitation Pope Francis extended to Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to participate in a Vatican meeting with Israeli president Shimon Peres and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in 2014, the Pope’s objective is to facilitate dialogue with broad religious representation.

It is a strategy that reduces the appearance of the Catholic Church making some institutional power play, in a country where the beneficial tradition of ecumenical collaboration has been practiced for close to 60 years.

Dynamic Catholic Presence

Evidence of government failure is as clear as evidence of a persevering Church.

Organizing the ecumenical pilgrimage is a way of recognizing extraordinary work being done in the country. For example, facing a vast range of needs, Catholic men and women religious from some 30 congregations invented a new way to serve: Known as Solidarity With South Sudan, the ministry collaborates across religious orders and concentrates its most intensive programs on training teachers, health care workers and midwives.

In the U.S., this work is coordinated by Friends in Solidarity. Its president, Sister Joan Mumaw, of the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart, spoke to the Register about their accomplishments, despite obstacles.

She reports that about 700 teachers, trained at a two-year teacher training college in Yambo, have been certified since 2013 while 290 students graduated from the Catholic Health Training Institute in Wau, mainly nurses and midwives. Both schools are located far from Juba, the capital city.

Distressingly, over 70% of the country’s children are not in school.

(One of the country’s most prestigious schools, Catholic University of South Sudan, predates independence. It opened in 2008 as an initiative of the Sudanese bishops’ conference. The university has more than 1,800 students enrolled in Juba and Wau. During war, it was the only university that stayed open for graduate students.)

“We’re very proud that about 90% of our graduates are working in health care institutions in South Sudan,” said Sister Joan. Teachers face more difficult placement because the government does not pay them “so many graduates wind up with NGOs but they remain leaders in the community,” which is a major objective.

Sister Joan also highlighted a benefit of both schools bringing in people from different regions and ethnic backgrounds together: Because students live and work together for several years, “they come to respect differences and see themselves as South Sudanese, one nation.”

Sister Joan is stepping down from her post next month. Her replacement, Sister Mumbi Kigutha of the Precious Blood Sisters of Dayton, Ohio, will be in Juba when Pope Francis arrives. “The Pope can help reanimate the peace process,” noted Sister Joan.

A Periphery on Brink of Despair

South Sudan is the newest — and poorest — country on earth.

The civil war, which killed more than 400,000 people and displaced another more than 4.5 million, propelled an already poor country to the very bottom of global wellness: South Sudan has one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates; 88% of women cannot read or write; 82% of the population lives in poverty; and only 10% have access to basic sanitation.

Hardly a drop of the nation’s oil wealth trickles down to its citizens. Having fought for decades to free the South from the North’s grip, the new government failed to pivot to institution building and service delivery. International organizations and faith-based organizations picked up the slack.

In the last year, renewed conflict combined with the worst flooding in decades have led to extreme famine risk: Two-thirds of South Sudanese people are experiencing severe hunger, the highest rate of food insecurity since 2011. Meanwhile, war in Ukraine has diverted donor dollars to a new crisis, diluting the humanitarian response in South Sudan.

Some describe the Pope’s arrival as coming as the country is on the brink of disaster.

One can’t imagine a place more peripheral, which is exactly where Francis says God calls us to go. In Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), he writes, “[A]ll of us are asked to obey his call to go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the 'peripheries' in need of the light of the Gospel.”

Thus, South Sudan’s very marginality compels the Holy Father’s attention.

Walking Pilgrimage

Small miracles abound, for those who see them.

Here’s hallelujah news: Two years ago, Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek was shot in the legs by midnight attackers who broke into the Rumbeck rectory in a bizarre act of intimidation. Multiple surgeries were necessary to restore his ability to walk.

Yet, on Jan. 25, he set out on a nine-day walking pilgrimage from Rumbeck to Juba, together with some 80 youth, students and justice and peace committee members.

“We shall go from parish to parish along the way to share the message of communion and reconciliation of the Holy Father,” Bishop Carlassare wrote in an e-mail to the Register.

“The Holy Father is now coming as a pilgrim of peace together with religious leaders of other Christian denominations. He challenges each South Sudanese person to join him in the same pilgrimage. Peace is not the goal of the journey, but the journey itself,” the bishop explained.

He described Francis’ attention as “giving us great strength and courage,” with positive future outcomes.

“People will more boldly stand for peace and will not be easily manipulated by violent individuals,” he said. “Government will put more effort to implement the arrangements of the peace process and be open to more dialogue among the parties. Church leaders will continue to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ has reconciled us with one another.”

Bishop Carlassare concluded his hopeful message with the prayer that, “Disarmament starts disarming our hearts…”

Reconciliation, While Opposing Plunder

Bishop Carlassare’s vision is not far-fetched. Pope Francis visited Kenya in 2015. His address against tribalism calling for everyone in the stadium to hold hands, rippled through national culture and helped prevent a presidential election from tearing the country apart.

Many Catholic clergy in South Sudan are hoping the pilgrimage resonates on multiple levels.

Missionaries of Africa Father Jim Greene shared this with the Register, “We hope that the Pope will also speak about reconciliation, not just at political and national levels. He should speak about reconciliation between neighbors, between peoples of different ethnicities, and especially about an interior reconciling with past events.”

For sure, the Pope will evoke reconciliation, over and over.

At the same time, he’s preparing a fierce critique of plunder on the continent, which has been so corrosive.

“There is something we must denounce: there is a collective unconscious … which says Africa is to be exploited, Pope Francis said in a Dec. 15 interview. “History tells us so, with independence halfway through. They give them economic independence from the ground up, but they keep the subsoil to exploit it, we see the malevolence of other countries that appropriate [African] resources.”