By Deborah Castellano Lubov
Edited by Ononye VC
“We need courageous, generous souls ready to suffer and die for Africa.”
Pope Francis stressed this when speaking to bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and lay pastoral workers of South Sudan, in the Cathedral of Saint Therese in the African nation’s capital of Juba, on Saturday morning.
This encounter marks the first event of the pope’s second day in the country, before meeting with his Jesuit confreres, internally displaced peoples, and participating in an ecumenical prayer gathering later on in the day. The pope will celebrate Mass for the nation’s faithful on Sunday morning.
The Holy Father is in South Sudan as a “pilgrim of peace”, where he is embarking upon a three-day ecumenical pilgrimage for peace, with the archbishop of Canterbury, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The visit to the country marks the second leg of his two-nation, 40th, apostolic journey abroad, and his fifth journey to Africa.
Pope Francis visited the DRC from 31 January to 3 February, following in the footsteps of Pope John Paul II, who visited there in 1980 and 1985.
In his remarks, Pope Francis recalled that in his address yesterday, he drew upon the image of the waters of the Nile, which flows through the country. In the Bible, he recalled, water is often associated with God’s activity in creation, and cleanses and sanctifies.
From the same biblical perspective, the pope said he wished to take another look at the waters of the Nile.
The waters of that great river, the pope lamented, collect “the sighs and sufferings of your communities, the pain of so many shattered lives, the tragedy of a people in flight, the sorrow and fear in the hearts and eyes of so many women and children.”
He added that they also bring to mind the story of Moses, “a story of liberation and salvation.”
Remembering the story of Moses, who led God’s people through the desert, the pope invited, “Let us ask ourselves what it means for us to be ministers of God in a land scarred by war, hatred, violence, and poverty.”
“How can we exercise our ministry in this land, along the banks of a river bathed in so much innocent blood, among the tear-stained faces of the people entrusted to us?”
To try to answer this, the pope suggested that the clergy reflect on two aspects of Moses’ character, namely, his meekness and intercession.
Moses’ meekness, “his docile response to God’s initiative,” he stressed, was exemplary, but “we must not think, though, that it was always this way.” The pope recalled that “at first,” Moses “attempted to fight injustice and oppression on his own.”
Moses’ mistake, the Holy Father suggested, was putting himself at the centre and relying on his strength alone, which led him “to remain trapped in the worst of our human ways of doing things,” responding “to violence with violence.”
The pope warned the clergy against the tendency to think at times that they are at the centre of everything.
He warned against when, as a Church, we sometimes think we can find an answer to people’s suffering and needs through human resources, like money, cleverness or power.
Instead, he insisted, “everything we accomplish comes from God: He is the Lord, and we are called to be docile instruments in His hands.”
This, the pope said, is the kind of meekness that we need in our ministry, “a readiness to approach God in wonder and humility, to let ourselves be drawn to Him and guided by Him, and to realise that the primacy is His.”
“Let us allow ourselves to be drawn to the Lord and spend time with Him in prayer, daily approach the mystery of God, so that he can burn away the dead wood of our pride and our immoderate ambitions, and make us humble travelling companions of all those entrusted to our care.”
The pope then turned to the second aspect of Moses’ character, being an intercessor, pointing out that Moses’ meekness before God made him capable of interceding for them, bringing them closer to God.
“Our first duty is not to be a Church that is perfectly organised, but a Church that, in the name of Christ, stands in the midst of people’s troubled lives, a Church that is willing to dirty its hands for people.”
The Holy Father urged pastors to work together, walk alongside the people, and never chase prestige.
He urged them to make every effort to banish the temptation of “individualism”, of pursuing “partisan interests”, and he lamented how sad it is “when the Church’s pastors are incapable of communion,” “fail to cooperate, and even ignore one another!”
Inviting them to cultivate mutual respect, closeness and practical cooperation, the pope asked, “If we fail to do this ourselves, how can we preach it to others?”
Reflecting on the art of intercession, Pope Francis said to look at Moses’ hands, noting that Scripture offers us three images in this regard: Moses with staff in hand, with outstretched hands, and with his hands raised to heaven.
The first image, Moses with staff in hand, the pope said, tells us that he intercedes with prophecy.
With that staff, the Holy Father observed, Moses works wonders, signs of God’s presence and power, and speaks in God’s name, forcefully denouncing the oppression that the people are suffering, and demanding of Pharaoh to let them depart.
“Brothers and sisters,” he continued, “we too are called to intercede for our people, to raise our voices against the injustice and the abuses of power that oppress and use violence to suit their own ends amid the cloud of conflicts.”
“If we want to be pastors who intercede, we cannot remain neutral before the pain caused by acts of injustice and violence. To violate the fundamental rights of any woman or man is an offence against Christ.”
The second image, the pope stated, is that of Moses with outstretched hands, recalling that Scripture tells us that he “stretched out his hand over the sea.”
It is necessary to extend our arms to our brothers and sisters, to support them on their journey, the pope reflected.
“Our hands,” he continued, “were ‘anointed with Spirit’ not only for the sacred rites, but also to encourage, help and accompany people to leave behind whatever paralyses them, keeps them closed in on themselves, and makes them fearful.”
• Bringing struggles of the people before God
The pope then reflected on the third image of Moses with his hands raised to heaven.
“Moses stood with the people to the very end, raising his hands on their behalf. He did not think of saving himself alone; he did not sell out the people for his own interests!”
The task of intercessors, the Holy Father suggested, involves bringing people’s struggles before God in prayer, obtaining forgiveness for them, and administering reconciliation as channels of God’s mercy.
“Beloved, these prophetic hands, outstretched and raised, demand great effort,” he said, acknowledging that “to be prophets, companions and intercessors, to show with our life the mystery of God’s closeness to His people, can cost us our lives.”
“Many priests and religious have been victims of violence and attacks in which they lost their lives,” he lamented.
In a very real way, he said, they offered their lives for the sake of the Gospel.
“Their closeness to their brothers and sisters is a marvelous testimony that they bequeath to us, a legacy that invites us to carry forward their mission,” he said.
• Need courageous souls ready to die for Africa
Pope Francis recalled Saint Daniele Comboni and the great work of evangelisation he carried out in South Sudan with his missionary brothers.
He recalled how the saint used to say “that a missionary must be ready to do anything for the sake of Christ and the Gospel.”
“We need courageous and generous souls ready to suffer and die for Africa.”
The pope thanked the clergy before him on behalf of the entire Church, for everything they do amid so many trials and tribulations, and especially for their dedication, courage, sacrifices and patience.
The Holy Father prayed they “will always be generous pastors and witnesses, armed only with prayer and love,” who allow themselves to always be surprised by God’s grace and are ready to always accompany His people.
Pope Francis concluded, praying that the Blessed Mother protect them, and asking them to pray for him.