The people of South Sudan during Pope Francis' ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace The people of South Sudan during Pope Francis' ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace   (VATICAN MEDIA Divisione Foto)

Pope's presence in South Sudan marks unique moment in time

Pope Francis' apostolic journey to South Sudan concluded with the celebration of Holy Mass in Juba on Sunday morning. South Sudan expert Miklos Gosztonyi highlights some of the most significant aspects of the visit.

By Linda Bordoni

Pope Francis wrapped up his visit to the East African nation on Sunday. He ended the long-awaited and postponed journey with words of encouragement and hope for the impoverished and war-ravaged people, telling them never to forget that Jesus knows their pain and loves them. 

During his stay in Juba, he also had strong words for the country’s leadership, openly expressing his disappointment for not having honoured the pledges they had made to cement peace and work for reconciliation and development.

His voice wasn’t a solitary one: his visit took the form of an ecumenical pilgrimage for peace in the company of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.

Together they prayed with the people and called for unity; the three voices were one issuing a powerful appeal for peace and reconciliation in the divided nation.  Together they challenged the country’s political leaders to stand true to their pledges to work for the common good, and to shy away from corruption and personal benefits.

Miklos Gosztonyi is a political analyst and humanitarian expert with many years of experience in South Sudan. He spoke to Vatican Radio about the significance of the spiritual leaders‘ presence in the world's youngest nation and about how it empowered civil society actors who have been struggling to get their voices heard in the country and beyond. 

Listen to the interview with Miklos Gosztonyi

Noting that Pope Francis had postponed this visit last year because of health problems, Gosztonyi said he came across as fa figure far from fragile, never stepping back from raising critical issues and calling South Sudan’s political leaders to account.

"If the political élite in South Sudan thought that they would encounter a frail Pope" engaged exclusively in a spiritual mission, he said, “without getting involved in some of the toughest parts of politics, they were absolutely wrong”.

In many ways, he added, “I felt that the Pope thought of this trip as a way of holding leaders accountable for not having lived up to the commitments they made to him when they visited the Vatican in 2019 and he shockingly kissed their feet, and they didn't live up to that.

“I think the key message that was sent by the three spiritual leaders to the [South Sudanese] leadership was: you didn't deliver what you promised, and I think that's a very, very powerful message.”

Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and Rev. Dr Greenshields address South Sudanese authorities
Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and Rev. Dr Greenshields address South Sudanese authorities

Gosztonyi also agreed that Pope Francis' appeal to empower young people and protect and promote women touched on an extremely vital point for development.

He said that the vast majority of those living in camps in Juba, “are underage and they are living a really difficult life, very difficult future.”

“The country started its civil war in 2013, and immediately these Protection of Civilians sites were created in the country, and people have been living there since 2013, tens of thousands of people, and in many cases, they are children," he said.

“The only life they have known is life in a refugee camp or an Internally Displaced Persons camp. And there are no signs that that's going to change any time soon for them.”

Their future, he continued looks very much the same, given the larger political challenges the country is facing, and so “it is crucial that the Pope talked about them”.

Gosztonyi also said gender-based violence in South Sudan is “really, really appalling” and that life is especially hard for women in many, many ways.

“To be talking about this and linking moral values, and spiritual values, with the plight of women and children in South Sudan, is a very powerful message.”

A moment of Pope Francis' visit to South Sudan
A moment of Pope Francis' visit to South Sudan

Ecumenical Pilgrimage

Gosztonyi was at pains to highlight the importance of the ecumenical aspect of the visit “in which both the Pope and the leader of the Anglican Church and the Church of Scotland” sent “exactly the same message".

Noting that for the people of South Sudan, the spiritual dimension is extremely important, he said that the fact that a very clear message resonated across the different confessions of Christianity made for a very powerful and a very unique occasion.

Political gestures of goodwill

Gosztonyi expressed scepticism regarding the South Sudanese President’s gestures to lift the suspension of the peace talks and grant clemency to some prison inmates during the Pope’s presence in the country.

“Given the way in which people live in jails in South Sudan,” giving them amnesty is really important he said, adding that “nobody should be subject to that kind of punishment.”

Regarding the Rome negotiations, he said “they are important in so far as any negotiations are and keeping a table and dialogue ongoing is important,” but he said, “in many ways, the Rome negotiations have been a way [for the political leaders] to keep the appearance that potentially bringing more actors to the Peace Agreement, that was signed in 2018, would have a stabilising effect in the country, while the reality is that most of the violence continues independently from that, and in many cases is fuelled by the leadership in Juba.”

The joy of the people for the Pope’s presence

Anyone who watched footage of the events during the Pope’s presence in Juba saw that, notwithstanding dismal living conditions, desperate poverty and a seeming lack of future, the people of South Sudan appeared incredibly joyful.

Gosztonyi agreed, and described “the feeling of the past three days of being somehow reminiscent of the joy of independence back in 2011”. 

A South Sudanese woman at a papal event in Juba
A South Sudanese woman at a papal event in Juba

“This is a really powerful thing that we need to understand, related to the level of suffering and sadness that the country has been in since 2013. So this visit has marked a really, really important moment.”

“In many ways,” he continued, “It makes me think of my own personal background: I am from Argentina, and Pope John Paul II visited Argentina in 1987. Argentina had undergone military dictatorship, tens of thousands of people had been killed, it had undergone the Falklands war, a huge economic crisis and a very difficult transition to democracy.”

He said that although he was a child at the time, he remembers  the Pope’s visit to Argentina: 

“All of a sudden you feel you're not forgotten by the world. You’re important and you're at the centre of attention, and someone who is as important as the Pope is caring about you and caring about the way your country is going.”

With all the differences of the case, he said, he can relate to how they [the South Sudanese] felt after they had been virtually abandoned by the world in 2013.

A South Sudanese girl attends a papal event in Juba
A South Sudanese girl attends a papal event in Juba

Those who unleash war betray the Lord

Reiterating his opinion regarding the importance of the ecumenical dimension of this visit, Gosztony concluded highlighting the symbolism of the three Christian leaders who came to Juba with the same message for the country’s rulers.

He commented on the Pope’s words during the Ecumenical Prayer on Saturday in which the said “Those who choose Christ choose peace, always; those who unleash war and violence betray the Lord and deny his Gospel.” Noted that the entire political leadership of the country was present, Miklos Gosztonyi pointed out that the Pope was telling them “they are not living a moral Christian life.”

“The power of that is huge. It's huge not only for the leaders but for everybody else in South Sudan who think that and who are usually not able to say anything resembling that, due to political repression.”

“So when you have the three leaders of the Church who come and send a clear, unequivocal message to leaders who claim to be Christian, that also is a way of empowering all the civil society actors who have been struggling to get their voices heard in the country.

“I think it's a very unique moment in time.”

South Sudanese Catholics gather for Mass with Pope Francia
South Sudanese Catholics gather for Mass with Pope Francia

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06 February 2023, 18:18