Pope Francis begins DR Congo, South Sudan visit

Pope Francis sets off on his 40th Apostolic Journey abroad to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for an ecumenical pilgrimage centred on peace and reconciliation, marking his 5th Apostolic Journey to Africa.

By Deborah Castellano Lubov 

Pope Francis has departed on his 40th Apostolic Journey abroad to the African nations of South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Pope Francis aboard the papal flight

Pope Francis aboard the papal flight

The ITA-Airways papal flight left Rome’s Fiumicino International Airport at 8:29 AM local time Tuesday morning, carrying the Pope and more than 70 journalists. The flight is scheduled to arrive at “Ndjili” International Airport in the DRC’s capital of Kinshasa around 3 PM local time.

Closeness to migrants, refugees, and the fallen

On Tuesday morning, before leaving his Vatican residence at the Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis met with about ten migrants and refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, who are supported, along with their families, by the Jesuit-run Centro Astalli in Rome. Cardinal Konrad Krajewski, the Prefect of the Dicastery for Charity, accompanied the group for their visit with the Pope.

Upon arriving at the airport, the Pope’s car stopped briefly near the Monument to the ‘Fallen of Kindu,’ as the 13 Italian airmen killed in Congo on 11 November 1961 are known.

The Holy Father dedicated a prayer to the victims of that massacre and to all those who lost their lives participating in humanitarian and peace missions, before proceeding toward the papal plane.

Pope Francis prays for the fallen

When the Holy Father lands in Kinshasa, he will be received by a welcoming ceremony.

The Pope will then pay a courtesy visit to President Felix Tshisekedi, and address the country’s authorities, civil society, and diplomatic corps.

At the completion of this Journey on Sunday, marking the Pope Francis’ fifth visit to Africa, he will have visited 60 countries since the start of his pontificate.

In 2015, he went to Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, and in 2017 visited Egypt. Then, in March 2019, he made an Apostolic Journey to Morocco, and later to Mozambique, Madagascar and Mauritius in September 2019.

Long-desired Journey

The Pope was forced to postpone this visit to DRC and South Sudan, originally scheduled for July 2022, due to intense knee pain.

At the time, the Holy Father sent the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, to both countries on his behalf, expressing his disappointment to have been unable to make the trip, as well as his great desire to travel to both nations as soon as possible.

For years, Pope Francis has expressed his strong desire to travel to predominantly-Christian South Sudan, but the unstable situation in the country, along with the pandemic, complicated plans for a visit.

In April 2019, the Pope hosted a spiritual retreat in the Vatican for the political leaders and ecclesiastical authorities of South Sudan.

At the retreat in the Casa Santa Marta, the Pope knelt at their feet and begged them to work for peace and to be worthy fathers of their nation.

Ecumenical pilgrimage

The Holy Father will first visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, from 31 January to 3 February.

Pope Francis is traveling to DR Congo in the footsteps of Pope St. John Paul II, who visited the nation in 1980 and 1985. 

The Pope will then spend three days in South Sudan on an ecumenical pilgrimage for peace with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, before returning to the Vatican.

Some 20% of the world’s Catholic live on the African continent, and that percentage is increasing.