By Andrea Tornielli
The surprising and moving gesture of Pope Francis at the conclusion of the two-day spiritual retreat for peace in South Sudan, which the Pope hosted in his own house, has an evangelical flavour. And it occurred exactly one week before the same gesture will be repeated in the churches of the whole world, in memory of the Last Supper, when Jesus, now at the vigil of His Passion, washing the feet of the Apostles, showed them the way of service.
At Casa Santa Marta, after having asked, “like a brother”, the leaders of South Sudan to “remain in peace”, Pope Francis with visible suffering wanted to bow down before them in order to kiss their feet. He therefore prostrated before the president of the Republic of South Sudan, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and the vice-presidents designate who were present, including Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio.
It is a forceful image, which cannot be understood except in the climate of reciprocal forgiveness that characterized the two days of retreat. It was not a political or diplomatic summit, but an experience of prayer and common reflection among leaders who despite having signed a peace agreement, are struggling to ensure that it be respected.
Peace, for believers, is invoked in the presence of God. And it is invoked by praying even more in the face of the sacrifice of so many innocent victims of hatred and war. Something must have happened during those hours in Santa Marta, first of all between the leaders of South Sudan who accepted the invitation of the Bishop of Rome, whose title is “Servant of the Servants of God”. Kneeling with effort to kiss their feet, the Pope bowed down before that which God had raised up during this meeting of prayer.
Similar gestures, an evangelical icon of service, are not new in the recent history of the papacy. On 14 December 1975, Saint Paul VI, in the Sistine Chapel, celebrating the tenth anniversary of the cancellation of the reciprocal excommunications between the churches of Rome and of Constantinople, descended from the altar at the end of the Mass, still wearing his vestments, and knelt down at the feet of Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon, the representative of Patriarch Demetrios. It was a gesture that recalled, not only Jesus’ washing of the feet, but also the events of the Council of Florence, when the Orthodox patriarchs refused to kiss the feet of Pope Eugene IV.
In the relationships with other Christian brothers and sisters, as in the face of those who allow their hearts to be touched, and who accept gestures of reconciliation and of peace, the Popes, the Servants of the Servants of God, have not been afraid to humble themselves in order to imitate their Master.