In South Sudan, pope's message must become action, says nuncio
Pope Francis made an ecumenical pilgrimage for peace in South Sudan Feb. 3-5 with Anglican and Presbyterian leaders. A month later, CNS spoke to the Vatican nuncio to South Sudan about what comes next.
Pope Francis and President Salva Kiir attend a meeting with authorities, civil society representatives and members of the diplomatic corps in the garden of the Presidential Palace in Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 3, 2023. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Just over one month after Pope Francis' ecumenical pilgrimage to South Sudan, the Vatican ambassador to the nation said the Catholic Church must "step up its game" to help the people build peace.
Archbishop Bert van Megen, apostolic nuncio to Kenya and South Sudan, spoke with Catholic News Service after he met privately with Pope Francis March 6 at the Vatican.
The nuncio said the church's mission in South Sudan is now to "keep his message of peace alive and continue the momentum" in fully implementing a 2018 peace agreement meant to end the country's civil war; the agreement involves drafting a permanent constitution for the nation, which achieved independence in 2011, and organizing its first-ever national elections.
"This visit of the pope recharged this whole process and gave it a direction; the question is now how to keep going, how to get people involved and how to get the political leaders really on board," the archbishop said.
Civil war between rival groups broke out in South Sudan in 2013, just two years after it gained independence. Some 400,000 people were killed in open conflict before the 2018 peace agreement, yet instances of violence have continued, and the peace agreement has been violated numerous times including as recently as March 3.
The archbishop said the pope's "straightforward and tough" message of reconciliation between formerly warring groups in South Sudan was "understood loud and clear" by government officials and created a "new awareness of the need for peace" among the country's population.
"One of the intentions of the visit was to shake up the situation and shake people awake because in many ways the peace negotiation process had basically come to a standstill with very little progress, and in many ways, people had surrendered to thinking 'this is the way it is,'" said the archbishop.
"The whole concept of peace and justice, many people never lived that, they don't have a clear idea of what that is," he added.
While celebrating Mass in the country's capital, Juba, Feb. 5 Pope Francis asked some 100,000 South Sudanese and the country's government officials to "lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge in order to take up those of prayer and charity."
Although Archbishop van Megen said the pope's message was well-received, he pointed to the challenge of translating those words into action. In particular, he underscored the need to strengthen South Sudan's government institutions and establish a process for a peaceful transition of power once the country's president, Salva Kiir, leaves office. Otherwise, he said, the country risks slipping back into civil war.
"The role of the church is to talk to the politicians and say, 'Listen, take (up) your responsibility' and try to come up with some kind of indications on what to do when you are not here anymore so that we avoid the unnecessary shedding of blood," he said, "because otherwise it will be a massacre."
Kiir and about 52% of the people of South Sudan are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics. That status underscores the "prophetic role of church leaders," highlighted by Pope Francis during his visit, to act as an intermediary between the people and the government, Archbishop van Megen said.
With bishops, priests and religious in Juba Feb. 4, the pope said that to proclaim the Gospel means to "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."
The archbishop explained that in South Sudan "the Holy Father is a spiritual leader whom many people identify with as Catholics."
"Yes, he is a foreigner, yes he is a white man, and he doesn't understand the language, but his message is clear" and "understood very well by the people," he said. "The basic desire for truth and justice is present in every human being and the Holy Father was able to speak to that."
Still, the nuncio stressed that the country's future depends on that message reaching its political leaders who were scattered throughout the crowds at the pope's events.
"It's nice to say you're moved, but you need to move. You need to do something," he said, "otherwise these are cheap tears."