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The Desire by Pope Francis to Visit South Sudan Has “great support”: Vatican Official

Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher alongside his Holy See delegation and that of Lambeth Palace in Juba. Credit: Courtesy Photo

The Vatican Secretary for Relations with States has said that the wish by Pope Francis to visit South Sudan possibly next year has received “great support”.

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher who concluded his three-day visit to South Sudan’s capital, Juba, last Thursday, December 23 said such visit is being discerned, according to a Vatican News report.

In the December 24 report, Archbishop Gallagher is quoted as saying, “We believe that there is great support for a visit” by Pope Francis, and adds, “Though like all these things, there is never the perfect time – so we have to move forward in the whole process of discerning.”

The Vatican-based English Archbishop who held meetings with South Sudanese political and religious leaders as well as collaborators of the Archbishop of Canterbury from December 21 is quoted as saying that Pope Francis has expressed the wish to visit South Sudan on multiple occasions and notified those involved in organizing such a visit.

In 2017, Pope Francis expressed his desire to undertake an ecumenical visit to the world’s youngest nation alongside the head of the Anglican church, Justin Welby.

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"My collaborators are studying the possibility of a trip to South Sudan. But why? Because the Anglican, Presbyterian and Catholic bishops came to tell me: 'Please come to South Sudan maybe just for one day. But don't come alone, come with Justin Welby'. This came from the young church in that country, and it got us thinking about a very bad situation there, and about the fact that they want peace, to work together for peace," Pope Francis was quoted as saying during a 2017 meeting with the Anglican community at All Saints Church in Rome.

The initiative that year was halted following heightened violent clashes in different parts of South Sudan amid a serious humanitarian crisis.

In 2019, Pope Francis reiterated his desire to travel to the East-Central African nation that gained independence from Sudan in July 2011.

This was during the April 2019 spiritual retreat that brought together the South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit, the opposition leader, Riek Machar, and widow of South Sudanese leader John Garang, Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, among other political and religious authorities in South Sudan.

"We are all aware that this meeting is something altogether special and in some sense unique, since it is neither an ordinary bilateral or diplomatic meeting between the Pope and Heads of State, nor an ecumenical initiative involving representatives of different Christian communities," Pope Francis said about the spiritual retreat that had been conceived by Archbishop Welby.

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"The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will," Pope Francis further said, adding, "It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation."

Pope Francis was seen kneeling and kissing the feet of South Sudanese political leaders, pleading for the gift of peace for a people disfigured by the civil war that erupted in December 2013.

Recalling the April 2019 symbolic gesture, Archbishop Gallagher has been quoted as saying in the December 24 report in reference to his three-day visit to Juba, "The retreat at the Vatican got a lot of attention especially because of the Holy Father's extreme gesture of pleading with the leaders of South Sudan to move the peace process forward for the good of the people. So, we worked on that" during the days of the (Juba) visit.

Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher (middle) in Juba; Courtesy Photo

"It’s been a visit that is affected by COVID-19, but in the end, we decided that there is no perfect time for any such visit. We decided we should come now. We have come with the objective of listening to the people; listening to the leaders, both political and Church leaders, in order to see what is the situation here and what contribution can both the Holy See, in particular, Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury, make in moving this process forward,” the Holy See Secretary for Relations with States says in the Vatican News report.

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In Juba, Archbishop Gallagher alongside Mons. Andrea Piccioni of the Vatican Section for Relations with States were received by the Apostolic Nuncio in Kenya and South Sudan, Archbishop Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen, Chargé d'Affaires at the South Sudan Nunciature, Mons. Ionuţ Paul Strejac, the Archbishop of Juba, the Bishops of Malakal and Wau Dioceses, and a representative of the women and men Religious serving in the 10-year-old country.

Pope Francis’ desire to visit South Sudan was discussed December 22 when Archbishop Gallagher along with his Holy See delegation and that of Lambeth Palace, the organizational support of the Archbishop of Canterbury, met with President Kiir at his residence in Juba.

The Vatican News report describes the meeting as “a cordial conversation, during which the Vatican's support for the peace process was reaffirmed and the possibility of a visit to South Sudan next year by the Pope, Welby and the Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland was discussed.”

President Kiir is said to have welcomed the proposal “with great satisfaction”, reiterating his “government's commitment to the implementation of peace, while thanking the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury for promoting unity and stability in South Sudan.”

The South Sudanese President acknowledged with appreciation the humanitarian assistance, which Pope Francis has offered to those affected by recent floods in the country, especially in the Catholic Diocese of Malakal.

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During his three-day visit, Archbishop Gallagher who also visited St. Claire’s House for Children orphanage in Juba Archdiocese and presented a gift from Pope Francis is said to have expressed optimism about the African continent amid various challenges including insecurity, poverty, and natural disasters such as flooding and drought.

"I am a great believer in Africa. I am optimistic about Africa. I understand the many problems and challenges, but I think, in the end, there is an energy and an optimism. There is talent here which will take the people of Africa forward, including the people of South Sudan,” the Vatican official said.

He added in reference to South Sudan, “This is a country of great faith, with a great Christian tradition. And Christmas is a moment when indeed Jesus Christ, in his frailty, comes among us. God chooses humanity. Therefore, there is a great message of hope, a message of perseverance.”