VATICAN CITY — While many people were disappointed that Pope Francis was unable to make his long-awaited visit to Congo and South Sudan, Cardinal Pietro Parolin assured the people that the pope had not given up on visiting them.
“I did not come on my own behalf but rather to bring you Pope Francis’ affection,” the Vatican secretary of state told Catholics at a parish in Juba, South Sudan, July 7.
The Vatican press office had announced June 10 that the pope’s visit to Congo and his ecumenical pilgrimage to South Sudan were postponed because the pope continued to have problems with his knee.
The pope asked Cardinal Parolin to visit the two countries July 1-8 “in order to show his closeness to the beloved peoples of the Congo and South Sudan.”
After meeting with Congolese government authorities as well as U.N. representatives in Kinshasa, Cardinal Parolin celebrated Mass with the country’s Catholics July 3.
In his homily, he urged Catholics to not give up hope and to not fall into the temptation of “giving up in the face of reality.”
“God calls us to look to the future: together, united, overcoming any spirit of partiality, any division of group, of ethnicity, of belonging,” Cardinal Parolin said.
Before leaving Congo for South Sudan July 5, Cardinal Parolin told Vatican News his visit to Congo left him feeling “reinvigorated.”
“It was a beautiful and intense moment, and I believe that it was positive, especially for them. The first impressions were that the visit was to bring the presence and the affection of the pope. And I hope this happens as well in South Sudan,” he said.
South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war. But, just two years after independence, political tensions erupted into violence. The Vatican hosted a spiritual retreat in April 2019 with the leaders of all the warring political factions and clans.
At the end of the retreat, the pope knelt and kissed the feet of the leaders of South Sudan, begging them to “remain in peace” and to “not be afraid” despite the many problems.
Meeting with Cardinal Parolin at the presidential palace in Juba July 6, South Sudanese President Salva Kiir said that upon returning from Rome after that retreat, “we didn’t fight anymore.”
“I said ‘no’ to new wars. The people perhaps have not seen developments, but they have heard the silence of weapons,” Kiir told Cardinal Parolin, according to Vatican News.
“We do not allow anyone to start a war. I don’t want to fight anymore; now we want peace in the country,” he added.
The highlight of the cardinal’s visit to South Sudan was a visit to a U.N.-run camp for displaced people in Bentiu, where he was warmly welcomed by thousands of its residents with singing and dancing.
Cardinal Parolin told Vatican News he was “struck by everyone, especially the children, who were always smiling.”
“It was a beautiful, touching experience as well as a dramatic experience seeing the conditions in which these people live,” he said. “We are in the periphery of the peripheries because these people would not even have the bare minimum to survive had it not been for the presence of the international community through the United Nations.”
Seeing the living conditions of the camps’ residents, he added, “hit me like a punch in the stomach.”
“I know Africa, in the sense that I began my work in Africa,” he explained. “But today truly was a very strong experience because I had never been in a refugee camp like this one so this impacted me terribly.”