Cardinal Parolin: Reconciliation at heart of Pope’s journey to Africa

In an interview with Vatican Media, Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin shares his hopes that Pope Francis' upcoming Apostolic Visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan will help promote an end to the violence that wounds both nations, saying the Pope's presence "could mark a turning point in the often tragic events in these countries."

By Massimiliano Menichetti

Two African nations await Pope Francis who desires to undertake this Apostolic Journey and create the conditions for encounter in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in South Sudan, both countries that are afflicted by conflict and exploitation.

This 40th Apostolic Visit abroad will see the Pope on African soil from 31 January to 5 February, bringing the Word of God, the hope of peace and dialogue. In South Sudan, the visit will have a strong ecumenical connotation, as the Successor of Peter will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.

It will be "an ecumenism of witness", reiterates Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin, specifying that this visit takes place to show closeness to the Churches and local communities, which are "alive and active", and to promote a "socio-political" awareness in the hope of reconciliation; two realities, that for different reasons, are impacted by the the drama of millions of refugees, of guerrilla warfare, of ethnic and political tensions.

Q: Your Eminence, the Pope is preparing to leave for the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. A much-desired visit, that was postponed in July last year due to knee pain. What is Pope Francis’ foremost wish?

As in every Apostolic Journey, the Holy Father wishes first of all to be close to, to meet the Church and the local population. I would say that in this visit, this desire, is particularly intense because it is a long-awaited trip that the Pope had to postpone because of his knee problem, and because these are two countries that are in a particularly difficult situation because of the conflicts taking place: therefore the Pope goes as a pastor to meet the people of God, and at the same time as a pilgrim of peace and reconciliation.

Q: Two countries with extraordinary resources yet crushed by unending conflicts and violence: what is the significance of this trip?

I would say that it has two aspects: there is a pastoral aspect, of closeness to the local Churches and to these communities that are living, active communities, and then there is the socio-political aspect, and from this point of view, it is expected that the presence of the Holy Father, his word, his testimony, can help to promote the cessation of the ongoing violence and strengthen the ongoing processes of peace and reconciliation.

Q: The first stop will be the Democratic Republic of Congo, where he will also meet with victims from the east of the country. Can this visit help to heal the wounds in people's hearts?

We hope so because they are really very deep wounds. It is a protracted situation: violence, contrasts and conflict. So the fact that the Pope is meeting the victims of this situation is a very significant gesture that will certainly comfort them. I believe that the first aspect and dimension of this meeting is that of comforting and consoling these populations that have suffered, with deaths, refugees... The other aspect is always that of encouragement not to lose faith, hope, not to give in to revenge, not to increase the divisions that are there, to have peace as a goal. Therefore, communion and fraternity are the purpose for which the Pope meets these victims.

Q: From Congo, the Holy Father will move on to South Sudan. In 2019 - we remember - he kissed the feet of the South Sudanese leaders to implore peace. What role can religion play in the stabilisation of the country?

The Christian Churches - as I too have been able to see - work in the service of the entire population, where very often even the state and sometimes international organizations cannot reach. Therefore, they enjoy trust and authority among the population and this has allowed them to play a significant role in the complex international dialogue.

When I was in South Sudan, the President himself reminded me of the Pope’s gesture which, he said, touched him deeply and moved him profoundly: we could say it was a prophetic gesture. And it is a gesture that demands commitment: I believe it commits the authorities, really, to take concrete steps on the road to peace. We hope that this trip will give continuity to that very special moment and stimulate them to make concrete choices, to take very practical decisions so that the peace process can reach its goal.

Q: The Pope will visit South Sudan together with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. So it is also a trip with a strong ecumenical value...

Yes. This presence of the three religious leaders - the Pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland - is a very significant expression of ecumenism, indeed, an ecumenism - I would call it - of witness. Meanwhile, the very fact that the three go together is a sign that it is possible to find ways of communion even beyond or across differences. And then, this common commitment on the part of the religious groups present in the country to be witnesses of the Gospel, to be promoters of peace. So, it will be a presence and it will be a very significant journey precisely because it will be in three voices.

Q: So there is much expectation for the Pope's presence in these African countries. You yourself, as you reminded us, have recently visited the places that Pope Francis will see, where hope and poverty, drama and future, are mixed together. How can this scenario be changed?

It is a slow change that requires commitment, the convergence of everyone's efforts. Each country will have to try to set up policies that are truly based on justice and peace. And then, the international community must work alongside the political leaders of each country: supporting the nations in these delicate circumstances, accompanying them towards the complete achievement of their social, economic and institutional development. And in this context, there is also the role of the Churches, as I mentioned earlier, especially in the fields of charity, education and health.

Q: What is your personal wish for these peoples you have met and visited, and more generally for Africa?

I am very happy to be able to accompany the Pope on this visit, also because in July I undertook the same journey to tell people not to be discouraged, that the Pope would come, even if he had to - on that occasion - suspend his trip. The people understood this message and are now full of joy to welcome the Pope and be with him.

I believe that the hope is that this meeting with the Pope and then, in South Sudan, also with the other religious leaders, may mark a turning point in the often tragic events of these countries, and may sustain the goodwill of all: I believe that there is truly a need for a renewed commitment on the part of all.

If there is this commitment, it will be possible for the countries to exit the current conflict situations, it will be possible to ensure the fair development of the entire population and set these countries on the path to a better future.

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28 January 2023, 14:30