No official information is yet available on the possibility of a joint visit by Pope Francis and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby to South Sudan. The only certainty is the will of the two religious leaders to visit the youngest country in the world, which has not yet achieved stability and peace. One possible date could be next April 2020. There is talk of a quick visit of one or two days to the capital Juba, while travelling to other parts of the country, especially in the north, is not safe yet. A recent statement released by the Holy See shortly after the meeting between the Pope and Archbishop Welby, clarified that the journey would only take place after the effective establishment of a transitional government of national unity within 100 days, i.e. by February 2020. The South Sudanese Christian community is now looking forward to a positive confirmation, which will depend greatly on the domestic political situation. Pope Francis has made an historic gesture on 11 April, when he knelt to kiss the feet of the Sudanese leaders he had invited to the Vatican for a spiritual retreat.
South Sudan, a country with more than sixty ethnic communities, has not yet resolved internal tensions re-ignited in 2013 by a war between the ethnic Dinka militias, loyal to the current President Salva Kiir, and those of the Nuer ethnic group, led by Vice-President Riek Machar. Father Federico Gandolfi, a missionary of the Franciscan Friars Minor who has been living in Juba for the past five years, met with the Pope in Rome a couple of times. “Each time, he shook my hand and told me: “I want to visit South Sudan.” Father Gandolfi coordinates a huge parish with four confreres – an Italian, an Irish, a Croatian and a Polish – covering an area of up to 80 km outside Juba. To give an idea of its proportions, he gave an emblematic figure: “Since 2014 we have celebrated 4390 baptisms”. Father Gandolfi also presides over the association of religious: about fifty congregations operating in the country, with some 500 missionaries. However, in his heart there are certain social priorities: street children, internally displaced people living in camps.
With street children. Every week a group of young volunteers from the parish try to reach out and help young street dwellers. They bring water, food, and treat their wounds. “In the street even a small wound can be easily infected and lead to death from septicaemia”, Father Gandolfi told SIR, contacted by phone in Juba. Children are his joy but also they also “break my heart”, he said. Recently one of them died of septicaemia, two others were killed. So the friars decided to set up Casa Santa Chiara, a small orphanage with about thirty beds:
“People also bring us newborns rescued from garbage cans.”
One of these little girls was called Chiara and adopted by a local family. “She is growing very well and is a real beauty”, although “there is a great need for homeless shelters. But we have limited resources and we do what we can. For us it’s important to involve the local population, especially the young.”
The Christian community still doesn’t know if the visit of Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby will take place. Everyone refers to the political situation but “the necessary steps to form a new government have not yet been taken – the missionary remarked – and this creates tension in the country. Unfortunately, the political and social situation is extremely complex and it involves the international, national and local levels alike.” Of course, he acknowledged, the visit “would carry a very important symbolic meaning for the population:
Pope Francis is a man who knows how to bring peace,
which his gesture past April is a token of. People are looking forward to this visit, and so do we.” The risks in this respect are not so much for personal security, he continued, “because society is very respectful of certain figures and there are no tensions between religions. We have a very respected Council of Christian Churches. Problems could arise if a civil war broke out again. In that case even mass movements of people could become very difficult.”
4.2 million people displaced by the war. There are many internally displaced people in Juba who are members of the opposition tribe, it could be defined a “political refugee camp.” “The Pope’s potential decision as to whether or not to visit the camp – he said – is a very delicate one because it would mean taking a stand. There are all sorts of variables that must be considered.” Father Federico visits the refugee camp every week. “It’s overcrowded, with over 30,000 people living there since 2013. The food is distributed on a regular basis by the World Food Program but it’s not enough. New generations of children are born and raised inside the camp, familiar with only that reality and tribal language. They don’t speak the national language, so we’re bound to face major challenges when they grow up.” There are 4.2 million displaced people as a result of the conflict, over 3 million of whom live outside the country, in Congo, Kenya and Uganda, a resilient population that has managed to survive thanks to humanitarian aid. But not forever.
Expectations. According to the missionary, 2020 could be a key year for the stability of South Sudan. “As things stand today, the government is unable to move forward, we must find a solution.” “The people of South Sudan need hope”, underlined Father Gandolfi. “I have been living here for the past 5 years and I see young people who are losing hope, while in the past there was the prospect of a viable future. Now they live by the day. It’s impossible to start a family, they even stopped cultivating the land.”
“May the Pope come and bring us hope”,
is his appeal: “For a future of peace, for education, employment, social relations.” He added: “If the Pope could spend even one night in Juba it would be a significant sign for the Country. Like saying: I am hopeful.”