Meeting Pope Francis "a dream come true" for South Sudanese Youth

Pope Francis met young people and adults from the Diocese of Rumbek in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 4, 2023.

After a journey of 9 days and many miles, meeting Pope Francis in Juba, South Sudan, was “a dream come true” for many youth, an Irish religious sister said.

Sister Orla Treacy of the Loreto Sisters was one of the organizers of a peace pilgrimage, in which 60 young people and 24 adults walked part of the way from Rumbek in central South Sudan to the country’s capital city of Juba for the pope’s visit Feb. 3-5.

“The young men and women on the pilgrimage had desired and prayed on the way to meet with Pope Francis. They were not sure they would succeed,” Treacy told CNA via email after the meeting.

But Saturday morning, after his audience with South Sudanese priests and religious, the pope greeted the group outside the Juba cathedral.


“The moment with Pope Francis was a dream come true for so many of the youth,” the 50-year-old sister said. “They still can’t believe they met the pope, or that he had time to greet them and be photographed with them.”

One of the young people gave Pope Francis an altar cloth made by some religious sisters of the Diocese of Rumbek.

Pope Francis greets Bishop Christian Carlassare and youth of the Diocese of Rumbek outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media
Pope Francis greets Bishop Christian Carlassare and youth of the Diocese of Rumbek outside St. Theresa Cathedral in Juba, South Sudan on Feb. 4, 2023. Vatican Media

The peace pilgrimage, an initiative of the Diocese of Rumbek, began from Holy Family Cathedral on Jan. 25, the feast of the Conversion of St. Paul.

In nine days, the students and staff covered approximately 250 miles — about half on foot and half in cars — before reaching Juba in the afternoon on Feb. 2, one day before Pope Francis’ historic visit to the war-torn country.

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Treacy said the group attended every prayer event with Pope Francis, including the ecumenical prayer service on Feb. 4 and Sunday Mass on Feb. 5.

They returned to Rumbek by car on Sunday afternoon, arriving early the next morning after encountering some car troubles along the return journey.

Treacy is the director of the Loreto Mission, which runs a boarding school for high school girls, an elementary school, and a clinic in Rumbek.

She said the idea for the peace pilgrimage had started with a group of students in 2018, when they heard Pope Francis wanted to visit South Sudan.

“The visit at that time never materialized but we started an annual peace walk in Loreto, each year we would walk to a different county, parish and meet the people on the way,” she explained.


When Francis’ visit was officially announced, they started to organize the walk to see him in Juba; they were happy to be joined by other Catholics from the diocese, including Bishop Christian Carlassare.

Treacy said the stable situation in the Diocese of Rumbek — where a new governor has helped promote peace in the state — helped them to feel secure planning the walk.

At night, they slept in Catholic parishes in villages along their path.

“We were warmly welcomed in every village and parish as we passed through, we had no fear,” she said.

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“It has been incredible experience for all of us on pilgrimage,” the sister said, “to be united in such a way to one another and to the Church, to be joined and supported by so many people on the walk, to see that the world has not forgotten South Sudan and that young people are important and can bring about change.”

“The youth have also realized that in every village the people are the same, everyone is friendly and open, they have a new confidence in their own country,” she added. “They have moved to new parts where they never imagined they could visit or stay.”

Treacy told ACI Africa, CNA’s African news partner, on the ground in Juba on Feb. 4 that the peace walk was “more than anyone could have expected.”

Many of the young people on the pilgrimage had never left their hometown, let alone the county or state. So it was a big deal for them to go to “the big city” of Juba, she said.

“Everywhere we went people were coming out to greet us, to sing with us, to dance with us. The welcome was incredible,” she said. “It’s become much more than just meeting the pope; it’s been about discovering the love, the warmth, the hospitality that South Sudan can offer us.”

“It started out very small. We thought we were just going to go and see the pope. But actually it has turned in to something life-changing for all of us who have taken part in it,” she said.

Hannah Brockhaus is Catholic News Agency's senior Rome correspondent. She grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, and has a degree in English from Truman State University in Missouri.