“I come as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope,” Pope Francis told the political leaders of the Central African Republic (CAR) in Bangui when he touched down on Sunday morning. Francis was visiting CAR as part of a six-day apostolic voyage to the African continent. He arrived in Bangui after visiting Uganda and Kenya. In all three countries large numbers turned out, lining streets – often rows deep, to see the Pope. What message did he leave behind when he headed back to Rome on Monday? By RUSSELL POLLITT.
Pope Francis is the first Pope in living memory that has travelled into an active war zone. The Vatican was warned that this trip was high risk but Francis insisted that he wanted to visit CAR. He jokingly told the pilot that flew him from Uganda to CAR that if the plane could not land on Sunday he would use a parachute!
Amid armoured tanks, thousands of UN peacekeepers, and bulletproof-vested guards, Francis was determined to get out and about amongst the people. He travelled more than 5kms in an open Pope-mobile smiling and waving at the crowds. In a displacement camp, in Bangui, he moved freely amongst people, greeting them and shaking hands with excited children. When violence was reported to have broken out near a place the Pope would visit, he replied with an immediate “can I go (to be with them)?” according to a bishop standing close by. He was advised by the Apostolic Nuncio not to go, as it was a dangerous area.
Less than an hour after his arrival in CAR he was received at the run-down presidential palace. Speaking just one month before the country’s highly anticipated election, Francis said that it was his “fervent wish” that the elections would open a new historical chapter in that country. Head of the transitional government, Catherine Samba-Panza, urged her collaborators to help her work “ceaselessly for unity, human dignity and a peace based on justice.” She also asked Francis for forgiveness for the recent violence in her country.
After his meeting at the presidential palace on Sunday, the Pope visited a nearby camp of some 3,700 people who have been displaced by the ongoing violence between Christians and Muslims. In the midst of simple homes made of corrugated cardboard and aluminum, Francis delivered an impassioned plea for peace. People shouted and danced in joy at seeing him. “We must work and pray and do everything for peace,” he told them. “But peace without love, without friendship, without tolerance, without forgiveness, is not possible.” According to the latest UN estimates, some 447,500 Central Africans are internally displaced because of the continuing violence in the country. The current political situation in the country stems from the 2013 seizure of Bangui by a Muslim anti-government rebel group known as Seleka. A largely Christian militia known as the anti-Balaka has opposed them.
On Monday morning the Pope undertook what was considered the most dangerous part of the trip – he visited the Central Mosque of Koudoukoua in Bangui, in an area surrounded by a Christian militia. The area is called PK5 and has also been described as a jihadist stronghold. Francis began his short speech by saying “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters. We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such.” He said that those who claim to believe in God must be men and women of peace. “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself. God is peace, Salam,” the pontiff said.
Francis went on to say that Christian and Muslim leaders would play a vital role in “re-establishing harmony and fraternity among all.” Later, on Monday, just before leaving CAR for Rome, Francis told thousands of people gathered at the final mass: “Dear Central Africans, may you look to the future and, strengthened by the distance you have already come, resolutely determined to begin a new chapter in the Christian history of your country, to set out towards new horizons.”
Pope Francis arrived in CAR after visiting Uganda. In Uganda he said a mass at the shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs. The King, Mwanga II, executed the martyrs between 1885-1887. Twenty-two young Catholics and twenty-three Anglicans were killed after being ruthlessly tortured. Some were burned alive, while others were ripped apart with a spear, savaged by feral dogs, or viciously dismembered. The King had them killed because they refused to give into his demands which clashed with their Christian faith.
At the mass in Uganda, Francis said that the martyr’s died for the “good of all people” as they protected others from harm. Later, speaking at Kololo Air Strop, he asked young people to resist anything that “degrades human dignity.” In Kampala the Pope also visited the “House of Charity” where many sick, disabled and down-and-outs are cared for by the Good Samaritan Sisters. In his remarks Francis lamented “in many places, selfishness and indifference are spreading. How many of our brothers and sisters are victims of today’s throwaway culture, which breeds contempt above all towards the unborn, the young and the elderly!”
The day before, in Kenya, Francis had visited the notorious Kangemi slum in Nairobi. In Kangemi Francis gave his most provocative and uncompromising talk on poverty. He condemned what he called “urban exclusion” saying that it was a “dreadful injustice”. He went on to say that this exclusion is a “wound inflicted by minorities who cling to power and wealth, who selfishly squander while a growing majority is forced to flee to abandoned, filthy and run-down peripheries.”
He lamented the lack of access to basic services – like running water and toilets – and said that these were basic human rights. Francis also said that the “social and environmental debt owed to the poor of cities can be paid by respecting their sacred right to the ‘three Ls’: Land, Lodging, Labour. This is not a question of philanthropy; rather it is a duty incumbent upon all of us,” he said.
Although Francis has a specific message for each location he visited, a number of over-arching themes were clear: poverty and exclusion, corruption, governance, the environment, climate change, inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation. These were messages not just for the countries he visited but, indeed, for the whole continent and the world. By stressing many of these themes Francis not only reminds the Church what its agenda should be but also keeps the issues on the global agenda.
Francis has a special place for the poor and excluded. All his life he has always reached out to the poor; there is continuity between the man he was before being elected Pope and what he does as Pope.
In all three African countries the Pope made sure he visited the poor – a slum, a centre for the sick, disabled and elderly, and a camp for people who have been displaced. It was fascinating to watch just how much more animated and free he is when he is with the poor. For Pope Francis, doing something about the plight of the worlds poor is an important agenda item. He wants it to be the priority for the whole Catholic Church but also high on the agendas of the world’s political powers.
But the Pope also spoke about good governance and leadership. He condemned corruption in a Nairobi speech and alluded, a number of times, to how important good leadership is. He admitted, which left some church personnel surprised, that there is corruption too in the Vatican that needs to be eradicated. In many ways he tried to model the leadership he proposes – requesting that he is driven in simple cars, visiting a slum, a hospital, and a refugee camp. He refused bulletproof vests and was not afraid to visit an active war zone. He said that leadership is a great responsibility that requires true service. The pontiff told leaders that the common good should be their primary goal: “In the work of building a sound democratic order, strengthening cohesion and integration, tolerance and respect for others, the pursuit of the common good must be a primary goal.”
In every country the Pope spoke about the need to protect the environment and work towards halting the causes of climate change. He said that in order to renew human relationships, humanity’s relationship with the environment must be renewed. The Pope believes that there is a clear link between the protection of nature and building a just and equitable social order.
In a meeting with the UN in Nairobi, Francis said some of the most forceful things yet about climate change. He said that the COP21 meeting in Paris is an important stage of developing a new global energy system which must be built on 3 pillars: “minimal use of fossil fuels, energy efficiency and use of energy sources with little or no carbon content.” He said that a failure in Paris to eliminate carbon use would be “catastrophic.” He lamented a growing “global indifference” to millions who suffer because of the effects of climate change. Pope Francis has made it very clear that he will continue to call and pressure for a change in attitude towards consumption patterns that are damaging the planet.
Francis, throughout the trip, stressed the need for dialogue in the conflicts that afflict the continent and the world. He acknowledged that dialogue is not easy, as it requires generosity, but said that this was the only long-term way of resolving conflict. He called for inter-religious dialogue – especially between Christians and Muslims in CAR. He is concerned about the relationship between the world’s religions and, again, spoke about this. He asked religious leaders to seek a solidarity amongst them that would witness to the adherents of different religions and in so doing build solidarity between religions and put an end to so-called “religious conflicts.”
On the flight back to Rome the pontiff said that religious fundamentalism is a problem in all religions. He said that Catholics are not immune to this. “We Catholics have some – and not some, many – who believe in the absolute truth and go ahead dirtying the other with calumny, with disinformation, and doing evil.” He went on to say that they do evil, “I say this because it is my church. We have to combat it. Religious fundamentalism is not religious, because it lacks God. It is idolatry, like the idolatry of money.”
Francis told journalists on the flight that “Africa is a victim; Africa was always exploited by other powers. There are powers that only search to take the great riches of Africa – it is perhaps the richest continent – but do not think of helping the continent grow. Africa is a martyr, a martyr of exploitation throughout history,” he said.
Reconciliation was another powerful and forceful message Francis delivered in Africa. He encouraged reconciliation in and between individuals, between warring factions and with the environment. In all the places he met young people he, off the cuff, encouraged them to seek the path of reconciliation. Francis believes that this is the only way that will bring lasting peace and prosperity to all people. He pleaded with Central Africans to seek the path of reconciliation in a sermon in Bangui’s Cathedral.
Sr Elianna Baldi, an Italian missionary nun who has been in CAR for several years, said: “For the people living in the camp visited by Pope Francis on Sunday, the war ended today.”
Francis has made a difference by his presence – even in the small things. It was the first time, since the start of the war in CAR, for example, that all the presidential candidates came together.
The pontiff also had some advice for journalists when asked about the corruption in the Vatican. He told journalists that it is important they are truly professional and that news does not come to be manipulated. “For me it is important because the denouncing of injustice, of corruption is a good work. The three sins journalists should avoid are disinformation, calumny, and defamation,” Francis said.
Despite any shortcomings we can accuse Francis of, one thing is for sure: he is a pope that is in tune with the problems of the world and he is unafraid of putting them on the table. When world leaders would prefer to shy away and not face critical issues and situations, he will no hesitate to keep them on the global agenda.
You cannot fault any of the issues he addressed; they are the issues the world faces. DM
Photo: Pope Francis (R) touches a man’s head during a visit to a refugee camp in Bangui, Central African Republic, 29 November 2015. Pope Francis is on the last leg of a six days visit that took him to Kenya, Uganda and the Repulic of Central Africa from 25 to 30 November. EPA/DANIEL DAL ZENNARO.