During his visit to Kenya, Uganda and Central African Republic, from 25-30 November, Pope Francis touched the ‘wounded heart’ of Africa with God’s own tenderness.
On 29 Nov., during his emotional visit to the violence plagued Central African Republic capital of Bangui, Pope Francis made his way to the city’s cathedral and ceremonially opened the Holy Door that had been designated for the start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy. It was a poignant moment, greeted with wild cheers by all. It was also a perfect metaphor for the hopes that accompanied the pontiff on his first trip to Africa.
Prophet of Peace
His spot encounter with Kenyans, in Nairobi’s Kangemi slum, was overwhelming. There were almost 100,000 people. They came holding his hands, bowing to him in their unique style, smiling, crying, and curious from head to foot. He identified with their concrete struggles.
This slum is one of the many in Nairobi, which has persisted for generations and strikes a stark contrast to other well-developed areas of the city. It pained the Pope that almost half of Nairobians lived in slums. He spoke to them using very forceful words: “People living in such situations suffer wounds 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. This happens when we forget that God gave the earth to the whole human race for the sustenance of all its members, without excluding or favouring anyone.”
In his meeting with young people at a local sports stadium, a young man by name, Lineth asked him about ways to overcome corruption. He poignantly spoke to him off the cuff.
“There is corruption everywhere including in the Vatican. It eats away at our values like poison in our blood. It is something that eats from the inside. It’s like sugar. It’s easy. We like it. And then we end up in a bad way – we end up being diabetic.”
Manuel, a youth representative described the odds of young people in Kenya. He wanted to know how to face the tragedies of life. “God became a tragedy,” he replied. “God allowed himself to be destroyed on the cross. When you don’t understand something, when desperation hits you, look at the Cross.” He then showed the young people the two things he carried in his pockets at all times: A rosary and a small version of the way of the cross. “With these I don’t lose hope” he told the young audience.
The Pope continued, “Experience shows that violence, conflict and terrorism feed on fear, mistrust, and the despair born of poverty and frustration.” He challenged them: “Life is full of difficulties, but there are two ways of looking at them: as something that blocks, destroys, stops; or see them as opportunities. It is for you to choose.”
“Some don’t receive love in their families,” the youth told him with sorrow. He said, “If you did not receive love, you love others,” he said. “If you felt pain of loneliness, come close to those who are alone.” “Flesh is cured by flesh, and God became flesh in order to cure us. Let’s do the same ourselves.”
The Pope’s greeting in their language, “Mungu abariki Kenya!” (God bless Kenya!), put a smile on the Kenyan faces.
As Pope Francis drove from Entebbe to Kampala in Uganda in the early evening, crowds lined the some 25 miles enroute to greet him, standing rows deep in some parts in front of simple homes and stores, and waving enthusiastically.
“I have come to draw attention to Africa as a whole, its promise, its hopes, its struggles and its achievements,” Pope Francis told the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and the country’s political leaders. “The world looks to Africa as a continent of hope” he said, praising Uganda as “an example for how other countries can welcome refugees and offer them a new opportunity for life.”
In Kampala, he appeared visibly moved viewing a life-size sculpture that depicts the torture of several of the martyrs and their burning. He silently knelt and prayed. The moving moment silently inviting everyone to an “ecumenism of blood” was when he and an Anglican bishop offered a joint blessing to those gathered outside.
At the Mass outside the Catholic shrine, amidst a gathering of an estimated 300,000 outside the Catholic shrine, Francis called upon the martyrs – 23 Anglicans and 22 Catholics, telling the Ugandans to take on their example to build a more just society, to transform suffering into good, and to never forget the poor. He strongly exhorted the priests and the religious to be faithful, prayerful and courageous in witnessing.
Call for Peace
The strife torn Central African Republic was his ultimate destination. 30 Nov. saw Pope Francis in the Central mosque of CAR, where 15 people were killed just months ago. He prayed there with the Muslim community and the Imam. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he told them. “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.”
Some Muslims are living in the mosque after being forced out of their homes by the violence. “We are very proud to welcome him. The pope is not only for the Christians, he is a servant of God for all Central Africans,” said Ibrahim Paulin, a spokesman for the displaced.
Then was the great surprise! He came out of the mosque entered his popemobile. He invited the chief imam at the mosque, Tidiani Moussa Naibi, up to it. Both of them together made a round as the people looked on.
The Imam thanking the Pope said, “Your presence is a symbol which we all understand”.
The words of 12 year old Jesus Kopumo reflect the impact of Pope’s words on the people: “I dream of visiting Muslim PK5 neighbourhood to speak with our Muslim brothers and bring peace to the country, like the Pope said.” He added: “All Central Africans believe in God and there is no difference between Muslims and Christians. So the bandits and armed groups must forget their weapons. I hope the criminals have listened to the pope’s message.”
At his trip’s final Mass, at Barthélémy Boganda Stadium in Bangui, the pope delivered a homily that was meant for the entire African Church. “May you look to the future,” he said “and, strengthened by the distance you have already come, resolutely determine to begin a new chapter in the Christian history of your country, to set out toward new horizons, to put out into the deep.”
“Peace is not a document that is signed and then put up some place,” he added. Peace is made each day. Peace is a craft, a handiwork. It’s made with the hands.” As a symbol of the great need for mercy and forgiveness, he opened the Holy Door of Mercy, in Bangui’s Cathedral on Sunday, for the first time in history, outside the Vatican. He asked them to “arm themselves with righteousness, love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace.”
In the paediatric hospital and the refugee camp in CAR, he became compassion personified. He gifted them with medicines from Rome. He called on the world to learn from the poor, not just pity them.
At the Meeting of the youth he asked: “Do you want to be conquered or do you want to be victors: what do you want? The path of love – and can one love an enemy? Yes. Can we pardon those who’ve done us wrong? Yes. With love and with forgiveness, you will be conquerors. With love you will be victorious in life, love always wins, love will never allow you to be conquered.”
This was the 11th International trip of Pope Francis, (24-30 Nov.), and the one undertaken with risking courage, faced with repeated security advises against it. In this “continent of hope,” he touched human life in all its expressions – community, joy, dance, celebration, symbolism, pain, poverty, hatred and interreligious harmony.
“Violence in the name of religion cannot be accepted” he proclaimed fearlessly in CAR. His words touched many hearts. People of the region will remember his presence even more. This was a trip of images. Everywhere he went, there were enormous crowds, and he brought exuberance, laughter and tears of joy and compassion. Above all, he brought love.