In his journey to Africa, the pope preaches on unity, care for the poor and the strength of families
On Nov. 29, 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 pushed open 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 the Catholics of the archdiocese. It was also a perfect metaphor for the hopes that accompanied the pontiff on his visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic from Nov. 25-30, his first trip to Africa.
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.”
Francis traveled to three different countries that are facing many of the same challenges found across all of Africa: poverty, religious conflict, tribalism and failure to create democratically elected governments that are transparent, stable and free of corruption.
“My visit,” he said in Uganda, “is meant to draw attention to Africa as a whole, its promise, its hopes, its struggles and its achievements. The world looks to Africa as the continent of hope.”
More than any of his recent trips, including to his native South America, Francis spoke extemporaneously with great regularity, so much so that journalists scrambled for what might pass as official translations of his comments, delivered almost entirely in Spanish.
Francis spoke from the heart not only because it is his custom to do so, but in response to the absolutely heartbreaking situations he encountered. In the space of six days, he visited one of the worst slums in all of Africa, a charity house, a camp for refugees and displaced persons, a clinic and the shrine dedicated to martyrs who were burned alive for the Christian faith. And he became the first pope to visit an active war zone when he arrived at the central Mosque of Koudoukou in Bangui.
Francis stressed four key themes that were meant for all of Africa: unity and working for the common good; the dignity of the poor; care of the family; and dialogue among the faiths.
In Kenya, he addressed the political leadership still trying to build a unified country of 44 million out of 42 tribal and language groups. He told them, “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.” Speaking off the cuff to Kenyan youth two days later at Kasarani stadium in Nairobi, he warned them against the dangers of tribalism and corruption, saying, “corruption is not a path to life, it’s a path to death.”
He brought a similar message to the Central African Republic where, according to the United Nations, one-fourth of the country’s 5 million inhabitants have been internally displaced since 2013 by religious and civil war. Quoting the country’s own motto, he urged them to remember “unity, dignity and labor.”
In Kangemi, one of Kenya’s most horrific slums, Francis assured the poorest of the poor, “I am here because I want you to know that your joys and hopes, your troubles and your sorrows, are not indifferent to me. I realize the difficulties which you experience daily! How can I not denounce the injustices which you suffer?” But noting those joys — he was greeted everywhere he went with singing, dancing and colorful costumes — he added, “I congratulate you, I accompany you, and I want you to know that the Lord never forgets you. e path of Jesus began on the peripheries, it goes from the poor and with the poor, toward others.”
Connected closely to the chronic difficulty of poverty is the health of the family. Celebrating Mass at the University of Nairobi, Francis praised the traditional love of the family among the Africans and reminded them, “For their sake, and for the good of society, our faith in God’s word calls us to support families in their mission in society, to accept children as a blessing for our world and to defend the dignity of each man and woman, for all of us are brothers and sisters in the one human family.”
In a touching visit to the Shrine of the Ugandan Martyrs of Namugongo, he called on Catholics to be faithful to their identity and to embrace the zeal of the martyrs in family life and society at large. “is openness to others,” he said at a Mass for 2 million at the shrine, “begins first in the family, in our homes where charity and forgiveness are learned, and the mercy and love of God made known in our parents’ love. It finds expression, too, in our care for the elderly and the poor, the widowed and the orphaned.”
The other major concern for much of Africa today is the advance of radical Islam and the need for dialogue between Christians and Muslims to end bloodshed and religious extremism. Francis went to the blood-soaked area around the central mosque in Bangui to demonstrate his willingness to talk. “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters,” he told his Muslim hosts. “We must therefore consider ourselves and conduct ourselves as such ... Together, we must say no to hatred, no to revenge and no to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.”
Acts of inspiration
There has been a tendency to look at the schedule for Francis’ world trips and see visits to refugee camps, the sick and the forgotten as almost perfunctory. It is, some might think, simply what he does. Francis’ visit to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic was a reminder of just how significant his constant appeal to God’s loving mercy can be. His words touched many hearts. e people of the region, however, will remember his presence even more. is 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.
“In every place, even and especially in those places where violence, hatred, injustice and persecution hold sway,” Francis told the still-bleeding and suffering people of the Central African Republic, “Christians are called to give witness to this God who is love.”
In countries where millions have lost their homes, struggle to eat and seem forgotten by the world, it was his greatest gift.