Vatican City, May 15, 2015 / 10:47 am
Pope Francis' address to the bishops of the Central African Republic on Friday focused on the Church's role in fostering reconciliation in the war-torn country, urging a deeper adhesion to the Gospel and the importance of honesty and justice in the process.
Armed conflict broke out in CAR in December 2012, and it has has since been gripped by violence between the mostly Muslim and foreign Seleka, and the largely Christian anti-balaka. The conflict has died down since the presence of international peacekeepers was enlarged in late 2014, but the nation remains unstable.
The Pope told the CAR bishops May 15 at the Vatican: "You, brothers in the episcopate, must play an indispensable prophetic role during the current institutional transition, recalling and reflecting the witness of the fundamental values of justice, truth and honesty, which are the foundation of any renewal, promoting dialogue and peaceful coexistence between members of different societies and ethnicities, thus encouraging reconciliation and social cohesion, which is the key to the future."
The country's conflict began when Seleka rebels, loosely organized groups that drew primarily Muslim fighters from other countries, ousted the president and installed their own leader in a March 2013 coup.
In September 2013, after 10 months of terrorism at the hands of the Seleka, anti-balaka self-defense groups began to form. The conflict in the nation took on a sectarian character, as some anti-balaka, many of whom are Christian, began attacking Muslims out of revenge for the Seleka's acts.
"Your task is difficult," Pope Francis reflected with the bishops, "but it touches the very mystery of Jesus Christ, who died and rose again. It is when evil and death seem to triumph that the hope of renewal in Christ emerges."
"It is when hatred and violence are unleashed that we are called upon – and find the strength through the power of the Cross and the grace of Baptism – to respond with forgiveness and love. If, sadly, this has not always been the case in the recent events that you have experienced, it is a sign that the Gospel has not yet deeply penetrated the heart of the People of God, to the point of changing their reflexes and their behaviour."
Since the Churches of the CAR are the result of recent evangelization – the first was founded in 1909 – "your primary mission is to continue the work recently begun," Pope Francis told the bishops. "You must not be discouraged by the storm you are passing through, but on the contrary must find, in faith and hope, a source of renewed enthusiasm and dynamism."
The Pope also referred to "the countless testimonies of faith and fidelity Christians have rendered to the risen Christ on numerous occasions. I am particularly aware of all that your communities have done to for victims of violence and for refugees," he said.
The fighting between the Seleka and anti-balaka killed thousands and displaced some 1 million from their homes. Since December 2013, Catholic churches have been sheltering the displaced – both Christians and Muslims – and protecting them from attack by both forces. These include St. Peter's parish in Boali, a parish in Carnot, and Bangui's Carmelite monastery. Catholic Relief Services has also fostered reconciliation workshops in the country, led by Rwandans who lived through their own country's 1994 genocide.
In the face of the violence, Pope Francis told the bishops their priority must be "Christian formation and a deepening of the faith … so that the Gospel permeates the life of the baptised, for the good not only of the Christian communities, but also the whole of Central African society."
He welcomed the contribution to Christian formation made by catechists and by "fidei donum" priests, who are on loan to Central African dioceses from their local Churches in other countries: "they are to be warmly thanked for coming to share the ministry in such difficult conditions," he said.
The Central African bishops "are called upon to form the conscience of the faithful, and indeed that of all the people, as your voice is heard and respected by all," he told them. "It is in this way that you should take your rightful place in current developments, avoiding direct involvement in political quarrels."
"However, by forming and encouraging the laity so they are steadfast in their faith and solidly trained in the social doctrine of the Church, able to engage in political debate and to take responsibility – and it is their role – you are able to gradually transform society according to the Gospel and to prepare a happy future for your people."
To be able to do this, Pope Francis said, the bishops must be attentive fathers to their priests. He also reflected on seminary formation, stressing the importance of "human and affective formation" in seminaries "so that future priests may be capable of living their commitment to celibacy; on this no compromise can be accepted."
The Pope also devoted time to speaking about families, saying they are "the first victims of violence and who are too often destabilised or destroyed" in the armed conflict which CAR has experienced. He added that families are "the privileged location for the proclamation of the faith and the practice of Christian virtues, the cradle of many priestly and religious vocations," and the ideal setting for learning the culture of forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation, "which your country so needs."
Pope Francis remind the bishops "it is essential that the family be protected and defended 'so that it may offer society the service expected of it, that of providing men and women capable of building a social fabric of peace and harmony,'" quoting Africae Munus, Benedict XVI's 2011 apostolic exhortation on the Church in Africa in service to reconciliation, justice and peace.
"I can therefore only encourage you to accord to the pastoral care of marriage the attention that it deserves, and not to be discouraged by resistance due to cultural traditions, human weakness, or the new forms of ideological colonisation that are spreading everywhere," Pope Francis stated, thanking them for their participation at the upcoming Synod on the Family, and asking their prayers for the synod.
Since the Central African bishops were in Rome for their five-yearly visit ad limina apostolorum – to the tombs of Saints Peter and Paul – and to St. Peter's successor, Pope Francis told them, "I sincerely hope that this pilgrimage to the sources of the faith gives you comfort and encouragement for the continuation of your pastoral ministry. May the intercession of St. Peter and St. Paul obtain for you the graces necessary to gather and to lead the flock that the Lord has entrusted to you."
Pope Francis has also considered himself visiting CAR. He expressed desire to do so during his January flight back to Rome from the Philippines, and Archbishop Dieudonne Nzapalainga of Bangui told Aid to the Church in Need in March that Pope Francis will visit CAR this November, saying, "The papal visit is a sign of the goodness of God and a consolation. He is coming to us as a father – and precisely at a moment when we have just been through a long crisis that has left deep scars."
The Pope concluded his address to the Central African bishops saying, "I entrust all of you, as well as the priests, consecrated persons, catechists, and lay faithful of your dioceses, to the protection of the Virgin Mary, Mother of the Church and Queen of Peace."