Why Pope Francis’ Focus on Africa, Church Peripheries is “disruptive in a good sense”

Pope Francis speaks at an audience with the Democratic Republic of Congo's authorities, diplomats, and representatives of civil society in the on Jan. 31, 2023, on the first leg of a six-day trip that will also include South Sudan. At right is President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Vatican Media

Pope Francis has paid special attention to Africa, a Catholic theologian has said, noting that the Holy Father’s focus on Africa, which he says has always been the periphery, is “disruptive in a good sense.”

According to Massimo Faggioli, a Church historian and professor of Theology and Religious Studies at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, U.S., the Holy Father’s ongoing trip to Africa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan, is especially important as it shifts the focus from “what has been traditionally a Eurocentric white-male-dominated Church.”

“There has been, in the last few days of the coverage of the Pope, a series of articles written by prominent commentators lamenting that the Pope is devoting too much attention to Africa and the southern hemisphere, and he has forgotten Europe,” Massimo says in an interview with Al-Jazeera.

He says that the lamentation is “very interesting because it shows how disruptive, in a good sense, Pope Francis is for the Catholic culture of white men in Europe.”

In the interview, the Theologian described Pope Francis as a religious leader “who seems very attentive to the peripheries of the world.”


Pope Francis’ trip to DRC and South Sudan is his third visit to sub-Saharan Africa. At the end of his 40th apostolic journey this week, Pope Francis will have visited 60 countries.

According to Massimo, the ongoing Apostolic Journey of the Holy Father is an important trip because “it is a glimpse into the future, which is now called global Catholicism, or world Christianity.”

The trip, the Church historian notes, “will look significantly different from what has been traditionally a Eurocentric white-male-dominated Church until a few years ago.”

Others who weighed in on the ongoing Papal visit to Africa were Christopher Lamb of The Tablet and Fr. Stan Chu Ilo, a research professor of Catholic and African Studies at DePaul University.

Lamb said that Pope Francis, right from the word go in his pontificate, has had “a very strong social message” especially concerning the Church on the peripheries. “In that message, the Pope wants the Church to go to what he calls the peripheries.”

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The Holy Father, according to the Catholic journalist, wants to take the message of the Gospel to countries that have been suffering, and “to speak prophetically, and to speak truth to power.”

“Look at what the Church in these countries is doing in healthcare, in education, and you know where the church is today and in the future. A majority of the population in the Congo are Catholic,” Lamb says.

On his part, Fr. Stan Ilo noted that the Catholic Church in Africa is becoming more and more relevant to a younger population, a situation he said signifies that the future of the Catholic Church is in the African continent.

He however pointed out the worrying trend of young people leaving the Catholic Church in favor of new denominations that he said are opposed to the Catholic Church.

“In Congo, there are new churches that are emerging that are very strongly opposed to Catholicism. They’re strongly opposed to the visit of the Pope,” Fr. Stan Ilo said.


He added, “Many young people are leaving the traditional Eurocentric tradition, not only of Catholicism, but also of the mainland Churches, and are finding a home in the Pentecostal and evangelical groups in Africa.”

“There is a strong divide which Pope Francis is trying to break by creating the freedom that we didn’t have in Africa until now, to speak our voices and to reinvent Catholicism in Africa,” the Professor at DePaul University said.

Fr. Stan Ilo described Pope Francis as “one of the greatest reforming Popes of our modern time”, and added, “Pope Francis is for decentralization… Clerically, he isn’t someone who just wants to remain at the level of what Bishops and Priests are doing.”

The Nigerian-born Catholic Priest maintained that the Holy Father intends to listen to the cry of the suffering in DRC and South Sudan, and not to impose any solutions to the ailing countries.

“The Pope is going not to impose, but rather to listen to the cries of the people, especially the ordinary poor. People who are staying outside in the peripheries, those not always seen,” the Catholic Priest who, November last year, coordinated the Holy Father’s conversation with the youth in Africa, said.

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Lamb echoed Fr. Stan’s sentiments, saying that Pope Francis does not have any specific policies that he would love to see implemented to restore peace in DRC and South Sudan.

The Holy Father, Lamb said, “comes as a person of faith.”

“He comes to change the minds and hearts of people. A million people are turning up for Mass in DRC. That is a strong soft power influence. It is very strong spiritual influence,” the Catholic Journalist said.

He added, “In South Sudan, we are going to see similar soft power influence to try to get the warring leaders to agree to peace.”

Pope Francis landed in Juba, South Sudan on Friday, February 3 afternoon for the second leg of his two African nation trip, which began in the capital of DRC, Kinshasa, on January 31.

In his speech at the Presidential Palace, Pope Francis begged political leaders in South Sudan to work together to put an end to bloody conflict and violence in their country.

“In the name of God, of the God to whom we prayed together in Rome, of the God who is gentle and humble in heart, the God in whom so many people of this beloved country believe, now is the time to say ‘No more of this,’ we say no more, without ‘ifs’ or ‘buts,’” the Holy Father said, making reference to the April 2019 encounter that culminated in a dramatic gesture to President Kiir, and opposition leader Dr. Riek Machar, among other South Sudanese politicians.

In his last official activity of his first day in South Sudan, Pope Francis alongside Archbishop Welby and Rt. Rev. Greenshields engaged with authorities and members of the diplomatic corps in the garden of the Presidential Palace.

On Saturday, February 4, Pope Francis is to meet with Bishops, members of the Clergy, women and men Religious, and Seminarians at St. Theresa's Cathedral of Juba Archdiocese.

He is then scheduled to meet privately with Jesuits in South Sudan in the Apostolic Nunciature. 

The Pope is also expected to visit internally displaced persons (IDPs) at Freedom Hall in Juba.

In the evening, the Holy Father has been scheduled to participate in an ecumenical prayer service alongside Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields at the John Garang Mausoleum. 

The same venue is scheduled to host Holy Mass on the morning of the last day of the ecumenical trip, on Sunday, February 5, to be followed by a farewell ceremony at Juba international airport at midmorning before Pope Francis leaves for Rome.

Agnes Aineah is a Kenyan journalist with a background in digital and newspaper reporting. She holds a Master of Arts in Digital Journalism from the Aga Khan University, Graduate School of Media and Communications and a Bachelor's Degree in Linguistics, Media and Communications from Kenya's Moi University. Agnes currently serves as a journalist for ACI Africa.