At a Mass in South Sudan on Sunday, Pope Francis urged Christians in the war-torn African country to make “a decisive contribution to changing history” by refusing to repay evil with evil.
“In the name of Jesus and of his Beatitudes, let us lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge, in order to take up those of prayer and charity,” Pope Francis said in his homily in Juba on Feb. 5.
“I gather here with you in the name of Jesus Christ, the God of love, the God who achieved peace through his cross. … Jesus, crucified in the lives of so many of you, in so many people in this country; Jesus, the risen Lord, the victor over evil and death,” he said.
More than 100,000 people attended the papal Mass in Juba held on the grounds of a mausoleum commemorating John Garang, a liberation leader known as the “father of South Sudan,” though he died in a helicopter crash before the newest African country gained its independence in 2011 and plunged into a brutal civil war two years later.
South Sudan’s civil war resulted in the deaths of an estimated 400,000 people. And while the country reached a formal peace agreement nearly three years ago, violent conflicts continue in parts of the country.
Pope Francis underlined that South Sudan’s Christians are called to be “light that shines in the darkness” by living out the Beatitudes.
“This country, so beautiful yet ravaged by violence, needs the light that each one of you has, or better, the light that each one of you is,” he said.
During the Mass, dancers wearing bright yellow sashes adorned with a large photo of Pope Francis and photos of other clergy danced in the field below the altar as a 300-person choir sang hymns and waved their hands.
The first and second Scripture readings were read by religious sisters who care for orphans in Rejaf, South Sudan.
President Salva Kiir Mayardit attended the Mass sitting with South Sudan’s five vice presidents, 10 state governors, and other key political leaders.
In his homily, Pope Francis said that Christians are called to be “people capable of building good human relationships as a way of curbing the corruption of evil, the disease of division, the filth of fraudulent business dealings and the plague of injustice.”
He explained that the Beatitudes “revolutionize the standards of this world and our usual way of thinking” by telling us that “we must not aim to be strong, rich, and powerful but humble, meek, and merciful; to do no evil to anyone, but to be peacemakers for everyone.”
Several African cardinals concelebrated the Mass, including Cardinal Berhaneyesus Demerew, archbishop of Addis Abeba; Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, archbishop of Kinshasa; and Cardinal Gabriel Zubeir Wako, archbishop emeritus of Khartoum, Sudan.
Pope Francis spent a moment in prayer before a large statue of Our Lady of Africa located beside the altar at the end of the Mass.
In his Angelus message, he entrusted South Sudan’s peace process to Our Lady of Africa, reminding the crowd that the Virgin Mary is the Queen of Peace.
“We pray to her now, and we entrust to her the cause of peace in South Sudan and in the entire African continent, where so many of our brothers and sisters in the faith experience persecution and danger, where great numbers of people suffer from conflict, exploitation, and poverty,” he said.
Pope Francis also recalled the testimony of Sudan’s St. Josephine Bakhita, whom he called “a great woman who by God’s grace transformed into hope all the sufferings that she endured.”
“Hope is the word I would leave with each of you, as a gift to share, a seed to bear fruit,” he said.
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The Mass concluded Pope Francis’ three-day trip to South Sudan. The pope will fly from Juba to Rome together with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the church in Scotland on a six-hour flight, where he will give an in-flight press conference to journalists.
The pope has called his Feb. 3-5 visit to Juba alongside Church of England Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and General Assembly of the Church of Scotland Moderator Iain Greenshields a “pilgrimage of peace.”
Catholic Archbishop Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla of Juba thanked Pope Francis for making the “bold decision to visit our country, which is suffering due to the consequences of the civil war.”
In the pope’s last words to the South Sudanese people before heading to the airport, Francis expressed how much he was touched by the long-awaited trip.
“Dear brothers and sisters, I return to Rome with you even closer to my heart,” he said. “Let me repeat: You are in my heart, you are in our hearts, you are in the hearts of Christians worldwide.”
“Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace. May hope and peace dwell among you. May hope and peace dwell in South Sudan!”
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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