Abp Gallagher in South Sudan laying the ground for a papal visit
By Paul Samasumo & Salvatore Cernuzio
“There is no perfect time for any such visit,” but it is not excluded that Pope Francis will visit South Sudan next year. This is a wish already expressed several times by the Pope himself and that receives "strong support" so that it can be organized by the authorities.
This is according to Archbishop Paul Richard Gallagher, Vatican Secretary for Relations with States, who made a three-day visit to Juba - from 21 to 23 December - during which he met with local political and religious leaders.
“We believe that there is great support for a visit” by the Holy Father, the Archbishop said speaking to Mbikoyezu John Gbemboyo, a collaborator of Vatican News’ English for Africa Section: " Though like all these things, there is never the perfect time – so we have to move forward in the whole process of discerning,” Archbishop Gallagher said."
The Pope's wish
The pre-Christmas visit to South Sudan by the Secretary for Relations with States had been in the planning for months, coordinated with Lambeth Palace, the organizational support of the Archbishop of Canterbury. And it was with the Anglican Primate, Justin Welby, that Pope Francis in 2017 expressed his desire to carry out an ecumenical mission to South Sudan.
Meeting with the Anglican community at All Saints Church in Rome, the Pope had revealed his intention: "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."
Already in October of that year, it seemed that the visit could take place, but the worsening of the political context and the escalation of clashes in different areas of the country, that led to which a break in the "ceasefire" and a serious humanitarian crisis, put the brakes on the initiative.
The retreat in the Vatican
On the occasion of the spiritual retreat in the Vatican of South Sudan’s highest religious and political authorities in April 2019, Pope Francis reiterated his desire to travel to the nation.
The meeting, conceived by the Archbishop of Canterbury, was attended by President Salva Kiir and the Vice Presidents-designate, including Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabior, widow of South Sudanese leader John Garang, and Riek Machar, leader of the opposition. Pope Francis knelt to kiss their feet pleading for the gift of peace for a people disfigured by nearly six years of civil war.
That unexpected and symbolic gesture is recalled by Gallagher: "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 visit.
Listening to the people and to the leaders
Obviously, Gallagher explains, "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.”
Arriving in Juba in the early afternoon of December 21, accompanied by Monsignor Andrea Piccioni of the Section for Relations with States, Gallagher was welcomed by the Apostolic Nuncio to South Sudan, Archbishop Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen (who is resident in Nairobi), by Mgr. Ionuţ Paul Strejac, Chargé d'Affaires at the Vatican embassy in Juba, by the Archbishop of Juba and the Bishops of Malakal and Wau, as well as by a representation of religious serving in the country.
At the airport he had a private meeting with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mayiik Ayii Deng. In the afternoon, at the Nunciature, he met the Anglican Bishop Precious Omuku and Martha Jarvis, representatives of Lambeth Palace, and some diplomats, with whom he discussed the current political, economic and social situation in South Sudan.
This was followed by a conversation with the South Sudanese Bishops, who expressed their gratitude to the Pope "for his paternal closeness" and renewed "the commitment of the local Church in favour of the country".
In conversation with President Salva Kiir
On the morning of December 22, Gallagher, along with delegations from the Holy See and Lambeth Palace, was received by President Salva Kiir Mayardit, at his residence. 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.
The proposal was welcomed with great satisfaction by the Head of State, who reiterated the 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.
In particular, Salva Kiir thanked Pope Francis for the humanitarian assistance offered to the populations affected by the recent floods, especially in the diocese of Malakal.
Gallagher's trip continued with a meeting with some representatives of the Ecumenical Council of Churches of South Sudan and with representatives of civil society.
On the morning of December 23, the Archbishop presided at a Mass in the Cathedral of Juba - in the presence of the third Vice-President, Taban Deng Gai-, during which he encouraged the faithful to live the mystery of Christmas, in the constant search for unity, charity and forgiveness. After the celebration, the prelate met with religious men and women of South Sudan and visited St. Claire’s House for Children orphanage in Juba, where he offered a gift from Pope Francis.
A people of optimism and great faith
At the conclusion of the trip, the Secretary for Relations with States said he was "optimistic" about Africa, despite the many challenges the continent faces: from insecurity to constant poverty to the devastation caused by flooding.
"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,” said Archbishop Gallagher.
He concluded with a thought for Christmas: " “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.”