VATICAN CITY – Pope Francis has rescheduled his delayed trip to Congo and South Sudan for Jan. 31-Feb. 5, cutting out a stop in Congo’s conflict-ravaged east but fulfilling a years-long wish to accompany other Christian leaders to the young nation of South Sudan.
The Vatican on Thursday published the itinerary of the trip, which had originally been scheduled for last July but was postponed because Francis was undergoing therapy for his strained knee ligaments. The 85-year-old Francis is still using a wheelchair, but has made other foreign trips in the meantime, suggesting that he can go through with even challenging itineraries.
“This is what we have been praying for, and I’m glad it is finally happening,” said Richard Sultan, an entrepreneur in Juba.
The new itinerary roughly matches the original, with one significant exception: Initially the pope had planned to celebrate Mass in the eastern Congolese city of Goma en route to South Sudan. Now, Francis will meet in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa, with a delegation of faithful and “victims” from Goma.
Tens of thousands of Congolese have been displaced, with many heading toward Goma, amid renewed clashes between government soldiers and M23 rebels in Congo’s mineral-rich east. A cease-fire to end the latest round of fighting was supposed to go into effect last week.
After the Congo leg of the trip Jan. 31-Feb. 2, Francis will be joined by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Rev. Iain Greenshields, for a first-ever ecumenical peace trip by the leaders of the three Christian churches, to Juba, South Sudan, from Feb. 3-5.
There, the three will celebrate an ecumenical prayer service together, and meet with displaced South Sudanese.
The visit seeks to boost a 2018 agreement aimed at ending civil war. The pope's trip has been in the works for years, but was repeatedly postponed because of the security situation on the ground, and then in July because of Francis' health.
“The coming of Pope Francis will raise our resilience as the people of South Sudan,” Juba resident Sarah Garang, 30.
Barnabas Marial Benjamin, the country's minister of presidential affairs, said the visit was a crucial piece of good news as South Sudan seeks international support while trying to consolidate peace and coping with humanitarian and climate change-related challenges.
"This is great news for the government and the people of South Sudan,” Benjamin said.
Archbishop Dr. Justin Badi, head of the Episcopal Church of South Sudan, asked for prayers for the visit, while Welby and Greenshields both welcomed word that the trip would go ahead.
“I am genuinely humbled at the opportunity to support our brothers and sisters in South Sudan in the search for peace, reconciliation and justice,” Greenshields said in a statement, which noted that the Church of Scotland had been invited to “represent the Presbyterian family due to its strong partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan.”
Welby, for his part, added that all three leaders shared a desire to “stand in solidarity” with the people of South Sudan.
In one of his more memorable gestures, Francis in 2019 invited South Sudan’s rival leaders to the Vatican for a prayer and knelt down and kissed their feet in begging them to make peace.
Machol contributed from Juba, South Sudan: