“God always surprises us, but Africa surprises us too. I remember many moments, but above all, I remember the crowds. They felt visited, they are incredibly welcoming, and I saw this in all three nations,” he said after stops in Kenya, Uganda and Central Africa Republic.
This overwhelming sense of welcome and affection caused Francis to call Africa a continent of hope. He described Bangui, the capital of the war-ravaged Central African Republic, the “spiritual capital of the world.”
His words evoked happy memories of the hope and joy expressed by previous popes who were touched by the beauty and depth of African culture and spirituality. Pope Paul VI, in his first visit to Africa in 1969, extolled the spirituality and closeness of Africans to God and also their sense of community. He said the time had come for Africa to have “an African Christianity.” Pope Benedict XVI reflected that “a precious treasure is to be found in the soul of Africa.” In a similar vein, in 1994 Pope John Paul II wrote, “the hour of Africa has come.”
Most visitors to Africa are touched like Pope Francis by not only the people but by the exponential growth in the number of African Christians and the large crowds who fill the churches and public spaces to worship God. But more than simply acknowledging the large numbers, Pope Francis took his pilgrimage directly to the people as he recorded several papal firsts.
Francis became the first Pope to visit a wartorn country when he courageously stepped into the chaos of Central African Republic. Despite warnings from UN and French peacekeepers, the Pope visited the enclave Pk5, controlled by Muslim militia, which has been battling Christian forces. The Pope delivered the simple words: “Muslims and Christians are brothers and sisters.”
Pope Francis showed the path to peace through symbolic acts. He rode in the popemobile with Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council. The Imam has been working with Archbishop Diedonné Nzapalainga of Bangui and the Evangelical Alliance to find a path to peace and reconciliation. The Pope also showed respect and fraternity by visiting the Bangui mosque, where he sat with the chief Iman of the besieged Koudoukou Mosque.
It was a moving scene to see young African Muslims dancing for the Pope and embracing him as one of them. But the most important act of unity was when members of the Muslim and Christian militia laid down their weapons and were bussed into a stadium for the final papal Mass. On seeing this beautiful sight the congregation, reflecting on the three-year conflict, shouted, “It is all over now.”
In another papal first, Pope Francis opened a specially designated Holy Door in Bangui’s cathedral nine days before the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica was to open and officially launch the Jubilee Year of Mercy. In Uganda, Pope Francis demonstrated ecumenical fidelity by becoming the first Pope to visit both the Catholic and Anglican martyrs shrines in Namugongo and Munyonyo in Kampala.
From the slums of Kengami in Nairobi, to the only refugee and hospice in Bangui for care of children, Francis delivered the message: “Africa is a martyr of exploitation” and “Africa is a victim of other powers.” He said Africa is “perhaps the world’s richest continent” and “a land of hope.” He also challenged Africa to make use of its abundant faith, human, cultural and material resources to serve the poor in Africa, who are losing their “I.D. card,” their identity as children of God as a result of poverty.
The question now is: How can Africa translate its strong faith and large population of Christians to strengthen its spiritual traditions and practices of hope in this blessed continent? For Pope Francis, the answer lies in solutions he offered in each country.
In Kenya, he recommended the three-L solution: land, labour and lodgings. He called for access to land and environmental protection to feed the teeming population. Labour opportunities are essential for all but especially for Africa’s youth. Lodging in the form of decent housing and access to clean water are bedrocks to improve standards of living, he said.
In Uganda, he proposed memory, fidelity and prayer. Memory is vital in terms of an appeal to the African spiritual tradition of sankofa, which teaches that progress requires learning the lessons of history. Francis invoked the memories of African saints and martyrs as models for African Christianity. Fidelity, said the Pope, asks Africans to hold on to what is true, just and consistent with the values of the Gospel. Prayer, he added, requires centring life around God and resisting despair and violence regardless of often-difficult circumstances.
In Central African Republic, Pope Francis advised three spiritual practices: unity, peace and dignity. These all work together to resist a divided nation or a divided Church, which would contradict the African spirituality of ubuntu, a belief in a spiritual bond of life and community that is sustained by solidarity and peace among people.
On his flight back to Rome, the Pope asked the world to remember Africa in its prayers as Africans assume a place of dignity at the centre of world and Church affairs. It was also an invitation to Africans themselves to realize God’s dream for this beautiful land as clearly articulated by Pope Francis.
(Fr. Chu Ilo is a research professor at the Centre for World Catholicism and Intercultural Theology, De Paul University, Chicago.)