Pope Francis addresses the leaders of South Sudan at a Spiritual Retreat at the Vatican in 2019. On February 3, 2023, he will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland in Juba, the capital city, for an "Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace."
It was April 11, 2019, in a library at Casa Santa Marta – the Pope’s own home. Selva Kiir, the Catholic president of South Sudan, stood next to Riek Machar, his incoming vice president, as well as other South Sudanese civil leaders. They were surrounded by Catholic, Anglican, and Presbyterian leaders from their country and from the rest of the world.What happened at the close of the retreat was deeply moving, and quintessential Francis. The Holy Father, at the end of his prepared remarks, stood to pray. He then looked Kiir, Machar, and the others in the eye, and addressed them off the cuff. He exhorted them to commit their whole effort, publicly and with one accord, to the power-sharing agreement they had signed the previous year. He pleaded with them to resolve their differences privately, and present a united front in public in order to heal the conflicts between them that boiled into civil war. He begged them to pursue peace, and to make good on the greater promise of a peaceful and democratic post-colonial Africa. He told them they could become the "fathers of the nation” if they led the world’s youngest country into a new era of lasting peace.When he was finished speaking, he came around his desk, went over to each of the leaders, knelt down and kissed their feet. The Pope, a man of 83 years at the time, and leader of over a billion Catholics, made a gesture of shocking humility, embracing indignity in the hopes of ending the indignity of war.You can watch the powerful moment here:
Global ecclesial families
The retreat itself was led by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, who stood alongside Pope Francis as he called South Sudan's leaders to uphold the fragile peace. Also in attendance was Rev. John Chalmers, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly, representing the Presbyterian family of ecclesial communities worldwide. During the retreat, all three global church leaders promised to journey to South Sudan to continue the efforts at peacebuilding.Next week, on February 3, 2023, they will finally be able to fulfill that promise. Welby, along with Chalmers’s successor the Rt. Rev. Dr. Iain Greenshields, are joining Francis in Juba, the capital city. The "Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace" will also make up the second part of the Pope's visit to central Africa, following his time in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.Catholics, Anglicans, and Presbyterians have long been the three most prominent religious groupings in what is now South Sudan. Together, they founded the Sudan Council of Churches in 1965, which was renamed in 2013 after the establishment of the new country in 2011. All three ecclesial communities emerged from 19th century missionary work throughout northeastern Africa. While they are now Indigenous-led, the Churches of South Sudan continue to look beyond their borders for ecclesial ties.The large number of Catholics in the country look to the Holy Father and the common life of Catholics throughout Africa and the whole world. In addition, the bishops of South Sudan continue to share an Episcopal Conference with the Republic of Sudan.The Archbishop of Canterbury is the global head of the Anglican Communion. Though he only has formal authority within England, he is the symbolic and spiritual leader of this family of 42 national Churches or "provinces." This includes the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, which has been based in Juba since 1976. It was renamed and reorganized in 2017, when a new Anglican province based in Khartoum, Sudan was established.Rt. Rev. Dr. Greenshields will represent the Presbyterian family on the pilgrimage. Presbyterians are historically Calvinist in their theology and governed by councils of ministers rather than bishops. Their roots are in the Scottish Reformation, which is why it makes sense for the Moderator of the Church of Scotland to join the pilgrimage. The Presbyterian Church of South Sudan continues to maintain a supportive relationship with the Church of Scotland as well as the Presbyterian Church (USA).
Hopes for lasting peace
South Sudan's independence from Sudan in 2011 stemmed from the desire for self-determination of the Christian majority in the south, apart from the Muslim majority in the north. Shortly after independence, however, the unity of that Christian majority broke down: not on ecclesial lines, but due to political machinations between Kiir and Machar that stoked ethnic tensions. But following the retreat in 2019, the president and vice-president formalized their agreement in a three-year transitional arrangement, which is set to expire soon.The timely presence of the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland exemplifies the power of a common Christian witness to building a lasting peace. These global pastors will speak once more to South Sudan’s civil leaders and to the country as a whole, appealing to that common faith in the Gospel of Christ as a summons to peace and a source of unity. Their appeal might even motivate people to demand that their civil leaders find a way to share political power and economic resources in a sustainable way.Their ecumenical visit will also hopefully bolster and encourage local church leaders and institutions, who may be poised to play a decisive role in building peace. The South Sudan Council of Churches recalls that its ecclesial bodies possess the “credibility, moral authority, and track records in previous conflict resolution.” It asserts that “many within and outside South Sudan have recognized the Church’s major role in peace building under the umbrella of the South Sudan Council of Churches.” The Apostolic Visit, which culminates in an Ecumenical Prayer Meeting for Peace on the evening of February 4, can serve to heighten that recognition.Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby, and Rt. Rev. Dr. Greenshields are global leaders, whose messages reach across the whole world. Shortly before the ecumenical prayer meeting, they will meet with a group of internally displaced persons. This meeting will draw global attention to the poverty and food insecurity that many South Sudanese people continue to face, especially in the aftermath of war. The Catholic Social Tradition teaches strongly that growing a community's spiritual vitality, economic capacity, civil infrastructure and social welfare are necessary to building that lasting peace, a claim summarized in St. Paul VI’s rallying cry, “if you want peace, work for justice.” The Church also maintains that all these aspects of human flourishing are intrinsically intertwined, what Pope Paul called “integral human development.” This moment, and the ecumenical pilgrimage as a whole, will hopefully inspire greater international investment in South Sudan’s peacebuilding efforts and in the healing power of faith communities in public.The eyes of the Christian world will soon turn to a very young, Christian-majority country seeking to emerge from conflict. Hopefully, Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, other Christians, and all people of good will are inspired to respond to our brothers and sisters in South Sudan with compassion, solidarity, and hope.Click here for all our coverage of Pope Francis' Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, including his Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace with Archbishop Welby and Rt. Rev. Dr. Greenshields.