Pope Francis held a retreat for South Sudan's leaders in the Vatican in April 2019 Pope Francis held a retreat for South Sudan's leaders in the Vatican in April 2019  (Vatican Media)

‘Great sense of hope’ ahead of Pope’s visit to South Sudan

Fr. Jim Greene, Executive Director of Solidarity with South Sudan, describes the country’s hopes for Pope Francis’ upcoming Apostolic Journey and the situation on the ground in the North AFr.ican nation.

By Joseph Tulloch and John Baptist Tumusiime

On 3 February, Pope Francis will travel to South Sudan, where he will remain until 5 February, meeting with the country’s civil authorities, Catholics, internally displaced people, and other Christians.

Fr. Jim Greene MAFr, an Irish priest and Executive Director of Solidarity with South Sudan, spoke to Vatican News from Juba, the country’s capital.

In an interview with John Baptist Tumusiime, he discussed the Pope’s upcoming visit, the anticipation building around it, and the importance of its ecumenical aspect.

A pilgrimage of peace

Pope Francis has regularly described himself, in the context of his visit, as a “pilgrim of peace”. He is visiting a country that is deeply divided, and suffering from years of violent conflict.

Fr. Greene emphasised that some progress has already been made in resolving the crisis in South Sudan.

There is currently no conflict at a national level, and “there is even some work toward reunifying the armed forces.” The Community of Sant’Egidio – a Catholic lay organisation that has been heavily involved in facilitating peace talks in the country – has, he said, been “doing their best to have inclusive peace talks with those groups that have not previously been involved in the negotiations.”

However, he noted, there are “some serious obstacles” to the ongoing peace process. Moreover, while there is currently no national conflict, there is much violence at a local level.

Huge numbers of South Sudanese have also been displaced by conflict, flooding, and climate change. There is, thus, he said, still “a very serious crisis still going on.”

Anticipation ahead of the visit

Given this, Fr. Greene concluded, “I think you have to see that the overriding emotion around the Pope's visit is one of hope.”

“Hope,” he continued, “that his visit will help people to resolve differences, give them a new motivation, give them a new encouragement that past differences, past conflicts, past traumas can be resolved, can be healed, that groups can come and live together.”

He admitted that, when the Pope’s planned trip last year was postponed, there was “terrific disappointment”.

There had been a huge amount of anticipation around the visit, for a number of reasons: because it demonstrated the Pope’s “recognition of the experience and suffering of the South Sudanese people”, because it was a sign of his “personal commitment to furthering peace”, and because it was seen as “a commitment from the Church in Rome to the faithful here.”

Now that the Pope’s visit is back on, Fr. Greene said, there is once again great anticipation – discussion on the radio, posters, even “cars are going around with stickers of him welcoming him to the country.”

A prayer for the Pope’s visit is being said at the end of every Catholic Mass in the country, so “people know it almost by heart.”

An ecumenical pilgrimage

South Sudan is a Christian-majority country and, although exact numbers are difficult to establish, Catholicism and Anglicanism are generally understood to be the largest denominations.

The fact that the Pope’s visit is an ecumenical one – he will be joined during his time in the country by the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland – is, Fr. Greene noted, thus extremely significant.

Listen to the full interview

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28 January 2023, 10:40