Posted on 02/3/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- An independent commission just published the results of a more than two-year study providing shocking details about the background, pseudo-spirituality and "mechanisms of abuse and control" of the late Jean Vanier and his mentor, the late Dominican Father Thomas Philippe.
They co-founded L'Arche in 1964, an international network of communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live and work together. Father Philippe and his brother Dominican Father Marie-Dominique Philippe also individually founded communities and were found guilty by the Vatican in 1956 and 1957 respectively for serious abuses and transgressions.
It was only after Vanier died in 2019 that accusations against him became public and triggered a series of investigations whose findings turned out to be just the tip of an iceberg.
L'Arche International then mandated a wider and more in-depth study into Vanier's life, the history of L'Arche, his relationship with the Philippe brothers, and how a warped spirituality of love and tenderness justified his own ritualized and mystical-erotic abuse of dozens of adult women.
The Dominicans of the Province of France and the Brothers of Saint-Jean also have set up study commissions to investigate Father Thomas and Father Marie-Dominique, respectively. The 900-page study and its synthesis commissioned by L'Arche were published online Jan. 30 at commissiondetude-jeanvanier.org.
Its general finding: A secret mystical-sexual abusive cult-like "nucleus" of members was formed within Father Thomas' L'Eau Vive community, which Vanier joined in 1950 and led after the priest left in 1952 when an investigation by the Holy Office in Rome, today's Dicastery of the Doctrine for the Faith, opened its investigation concerning serious allegations. The priest was found guilty and sanctioned "for serious offenses of a pseudo-mystical nature" in 1956, the office's archives said.
The core members were mandated to disband and keep away from the priest, especially Vanier, who, according to the Holy Office, displayed a "total absence of judgment" and was the "most fanatical disciple" of Father Thomas.
Vanier would need "serious proof of detoxification" from his mentor and real formation at a seminary if he were to ever get permission to pursue his desire to become a priest, it added. That permission was never granted.
However, the core members secretly communicated and met over the years, waiting patiently until Father Thomas was allowed back into France where they reunited and created a new community, called L'Arche, in 1964. Several other communities founded and led by people who had been spiritually guided or influenced by Father Thomas also were known for sexual abuse, the study found.
To read through the study, a pattern seen in other recent cases emerges: Some charismatic personalities, guilty of transgressions and sanctioned by church authorities, were still able to publicly pursue new projects and craft convincing reputations of being virtuous, even holy, leaders.
While the study only looks at "the joint itineraries" of Father Thomas and Vanier from 1950 to 2019, it highlights the "incredible persistence of a perverse nucleus" of people whose beliefs and practices were able to survive and spread for decades.
This raises questions, it said, such as: "How could such a group, although unmasked in the mid-1950s, have been able to maintain itself until the 2010s, over some 80 years?" How did Vanier and others not be seen as "sectarian" by L'Arche and the wider public? And how did they evade multiple church authorities that investigated their deviancies in "the L'Eau Vive affair," specifically, the Diocese of Paris, the leaders of the Dominicans and of the Carmelites and the Holy Office?
Similar questions are often asked when other popular or revered church figures are found to have been silently sanctioned for abuses, allowing them to continue receiving prestige, praise and positions that may polish their image, intimidate victims from coming forward, and provide new opportunities to take advantage of trusting, admiring followers.
The study provided a number of answers as to why sanctions and measures against Vanier and Father Thomas failed even as the Holy Office was well aware of their "fanaticism":
-- The core members of the disbanded L'Eau Vive were able to meet despite the sanctions, helping them support "their delusional collective beliefs," fuel a feeling of persecution and strengthen their ties. Measures demanding isolation for individuals are difficult to maintain because those assigned to keep watch "are not prison guards or psychiatric nurses."
-- The families of the core members enjoyed high social status, offering them "both financial well-being and 'society,'" that is, influential networks and connections that allowed them to oppose detractors and mobilize resources needed to establish and grow a successful venture, in this case, L'Arche.
-- A "culture of secrecy and lies" helped explain and rewrite the past.
-- Despite having a tenacious and diligent investigator at the Holy Office handling the accusations, Rome "did not have the necessary means to fight, on the human and legal level, in the long term. ... Foiling their long-term stratagems seems more like a counterintelligence service than a dicastery of the Roman Curia."
-- An "unbalanced practice of mercy, disrepute for canon law" allowed Father Thomas to start over back in France, far from "the gaze of the Holy Office" and communication between the various levels and authorities in the church also showed "insufficiencies."
-- Successive provincials of the Dominicans believed their priest was a "repentant penitent" and respected his work with the "poor and disabled."
The study concludes, "We must emphasize that the nondisclosure of the exact causes of (Father Thomas) Philippe's conviction is precisely what helped maintain his reputation for holiness and rewrite history as he saw fit."
"Faced with his duplicity and the culture of secrecy, with which he and his insiders have surrounded themselves, it has now become clear that bringing the facts to light is an essential condition for putting an end to it," the study said.
One final lesson, the study said, was how the "sectarian nucleus" did not develop far beyond its small core inside of L'Arche. This "astonishing" difference compared to the multiple abusers discovered in the communities founded by the Philippe brothers was due to those communities being more insulated and "closed."
L'Arche's doors, instead, were wide open to "a large number of people who were completely foreign to" the pseudo-mystical inner circle. The outside medical, social and government institutions, public donors, and other partners imposed clear frameworks and constraints to sectarian activity, the study said.
"These multiple brakes finally explain the observation of the apparent exhaustion of this sectarian nucleus in L'Arche. Vanier and (Father) Philippe are dead. Their influence has waned considerably" and those "suspected of still adhering to the mystical-sexual beliefs of (Father) Philippe, have a weak capacity for influence."
"The resolution of the international leaders of L'Arche to request a multidisciplinary commission to study these facts is a final sign that reflects the progress of this process" of collectively becoming free of past falsehoods, it said.
"The commission worked with the desire to establish the facts and try to understand the mechanisms at work, but also with the conviction that their exposure in full light is the essential condition for their extinction," it concluded.
Posted on 02/2/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) -- The hands that will save Congo and build a future worthy of its people belong to the Congolese people, to each one of them, but especially the young, Pope Francis said.
The pope met Feb. 2 with 65,000 screaming, singing, swaying young people in Kinshasa's Martyrs' Stadium, a soccer stadium named to honor four politicians hanged there in 1966 by the dictator Mobutu Sese Seko.
The country still struggles to find stability, peace and a way to ensure that its vast store of natural resources benefit the Congolese people and not primarily foreign governments or the multinational corporations that extract the minerals and gems and leave behind little more than a scarred earth.
Pope Francis asked people in the crowd to open their hands and look at their palms.
"God has placed the gift of life, the future of society and the future of this great country in those hands of yours," he said. "No one has hands just like yours, and that is a sign that you are a unique, unrepeatable and incomparable treasure. No one in history can replace you."
Even in a very complicated political and social situation, where poverty and violence literally take lives every day, Pope Francis told the young people, "Ask yourself, what are my hands for? For building up or for tearing down, for giving or for grabbing, for loving or for hating? Notice how you can squeeze your hand, closing it to make a fist. Or you can open it, to offer it to God and to others."
"Young people, you who dream of a different future, from your hands, tomorrow can be born," he said; "from your hands, peace so lacking in this world can at last come about."
UNICEF has estimated that 67% of Congo's population is under the age of 25.
David Bode Nguamba, chosen to speak to the pope on behalf of the young people, told him their lives are challenged by war and violence, which disrupts education and sometimes includes forced conscription into armed militias, unemployment and tensions, even hatred, between ethnic groups.
"The dowry system sometimes risks becoming the buying and selling of women for the economic benefit of her family," he said. "Young women are culturally discriminated against even though often they are the ones who carry the weight of their families."
Pope Francis peppered his speech with ad-libbed advice -- "When you are discouraged, pick up the Bible and look at Jesus; he will give you strength" -- and prods meant to rouse a crowd that already was excited. A veritable roar followed his request to "repeat after me: Stop the spread of corruption!"
Hands also must be used for prayer and healing, he said.
"Dear friends, to create a new future we need to give and receive forgiveness," the pope told them. "That is what Christians do: they do not merely love those who love them, but they choose to halt the spiral of personal and tribal vendettas with forgiveness."
Pope Francis told the catechists that they, too, have an important role in building up the Congolese Catholic community and the whole society.
According to Vatican statistics, close to 77,000 catechists serve the church in Congo. Bishop Timothée Bodika Mansiyai of Kikwit, president of the bishops' commission for laity, told Pope Francis that in the cities the catechists instruct young people and prepare them for the sacraments, but in villages without priests, they lead Catholic communities.
Olivier Buluza Onkon, speaking on behalf of the catechists, said that in Congo and throughout Africa whether the life of faith is transmitted or blocked depends, "in large part, on the witness, zeal and preparation of catechists."
"It is a beautiful thing to serve others, to care for them, to do something without expecting anything in return, as God does with us," the pope said. "I would like to thank you, dear catechists: for so many communities, you are as vital as water; always help them to grow by the integrity of your prayer and your service. To serve is not to sit idly by; it is to get up and go."
The choice to open one's hands in service of God and neighbor is as old as humanity, the pope told the crowd.
"All of you, together, leave behind the pessimism that paralyzes," he pleaded. "The Democratic Republic of Congo expects from your hands a different future, for that future is in your hands."
Posted on 02/1/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) -- Ladislas set a machete under the crucifix. Bijoux laid a wicker mat there. And Emelda dropped military fatigues.
The three of them and other victims of violence in eastern Congo told Pope Francis horrifying stories of watching their families be slaughtered or of being kidnapped or raped repeatedly by militia members.
Pope Francis had planned to go to Goma in the violence-torn North Kivu province, but increased fighting forced him to cancel the trip to the East to protect the crowds that would gather to see him.
Instead, the pope invited about 40 victims of violence in the East to the apostolic nunciature in Kinshasa Feb. 1.
Ladislas Kambale Kombi, 16, said he watched his father being hacked to pieces with a machete and his mother being kidnapped, leaving him alone with his two little sisters. "Mom hasn't come back. We don't know what they did with her."
Léonie Matumaini, an elementary school student, said she watched militia members stab her family; then, she said, they gave her the knife and dared her to bring it to the army.
Kambale Kakombi Fiston, 13, was kidnapped and held for nine months. He asked the pope to pray for children still captive in the forest.
Bijoux Mukumbi Kamala, holding one toddler and with another strapped to her back, stood in front of the pope as a friend read her testimony because she does not speak French. The 17-year-old said her "Calvary" began in 2020 when rebels kidnapped her.
"The commander chose me. He raped me like an animal. It was an atrocious suffering," Bijoux wrote. "He raped me several times a day, whenever he wanted, for hours. This went on for 19 months -- one year and seven months."
When she and another young woman escaped, she was pregnant. "I have twin daughters who will never know their father."
Father Guy-Robert Mandro Deholo read a testimony prepared for the meeting by Désiré Dhetsina "before she disappeared without a trace a couple months ago."
She had survived the rebel attack Feb. 1, 2022, on the Plaine Savo displacement camp near Bule and, she wrote, she had seen "the savagery: people cut up like butcher's meat, women disemboweled, men decapitated."
Maiming is not uncommon, Father Mandro Deholo told the pope, holding up his left hand, which is missing a finger. As he spoke, two women in the audience raised their arms -- one was missing a hand, the other was missing both. The priest accompanied the two women up to the pope, who touched their mutilated stumps and laid his hands on their heads in blessing.
On their behalf, the priest laid an axe at the foot of the crucifix placed near the pope.
Emelda M'karhungulu also had a friend read her testimony about what began on a Friday night in 2005 when she was kidnapped by armed men and "kept as a sexual slave and abused for three months."
"They made us eat maize meal and the flesh of the men they killed," she said. Those who refused were killed and fed to other hostages.
And, she said, "they kept us naked so we wouldn't run away."
"We put under the cross of Christ the clothes of the armed men who still strike fear in us because of the countless heinous and unspeakable acts of violence they continue to this day," she said. "We want a different future. We want to leave behind this dark past and be able to build a beautiful future. We demand justice and peace."
The testimonies, Pope Francis said, leave listeners without words. "We can only weep in silence."
But he did use the meeting to express his closeness to all the people disappointed that he was not traveling to Goma and, especially, to "condemn the armed violence, the massacres, the rapes, the destruction and the looting" that continue to sow terror in the lives of the people of Congo.
"Put away your weapons, put an end to war. Enough," he told those responsible.
In a country where sexual violence is a common weapon of war, Pope Francis offered special words of consolation to women and girls and strong warnings to those who would target them.
"I pray that women, every woman, may be respected, protected and esteemed," he said. "Violence against women and mothers is violence against God himself, who from a woman, from a mother, took on our human condition."
Later the pope welcomed to the nunciature representatives of six Catholic charitable programs working in the country, including programs run by the Focolare Movement and by the Community of Sant'Egidio.
The witness of helping others without expecting anything in return and of working with them to identify real needs and long-lasting solutions is something the nation needs, the pope said.
"Those who are prosperous, especially if they are Christians, are challenged to share what they have with those who lack the bare necessities," the pope said. "This is not a matter of benevolence, but of justice. It is not philanthropy, but faith. For, as Scripture says, 'faith without works is dead.'"
Posted on 02/1/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
WASHINGTON - Earlier this week, President Biden responded to a reporter’s question about the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion: REPORTER: “Catholic bishops are demanding that federal tax dollars not fund abortions.” BIDEN: “No they are not all doing that. Nor is the Pope doing that.”
Archbishop Timothy Broglio of the Archdiocese for the Military Services, USA, and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, released the following statement:
“As we are taught by Jesus, human life is sacred. God calls us to defend and nurture life from the moment a new human being is conceived. The Catholic Church has been clear and consistent in this teaching. The Catholic bishops of the United States are united in our commitment to life and will continue to work as one body in Christ to make abortion unthinkable. As the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has said, ‘It is not right to ‘do away with’ a human being, however small, in order to solve a problem. It is like hiring a hitman.’ Taxpayer funding of abortion would force people of good conscience to participate in this grave evil against their will. It would contradict our right to live in accord with the tenets of our faith. Our nation is better than that. I pray that we will protect every child no matter his or her age, and open our hearts to respond to mothers in need with love and support rather than the violence of abortion.”
Additional information and resources on taxpayer funding of abortion are available at the following links:
Posted on 02/1/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
WASHINGTON - On January 30, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) issued a proposed rule to reduce and, in part, eliminate legal protections from the “contraceptive mandate” for those who have religious or moral objections to facilitating sterilizations or the use of contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs. In response, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee for Religious Liberty, issued the following statement:
“It has been over a decade since the federal government first announced the HHS contraceptive mandate. The version of regulations that was issued in 2018 provided appropriately clear and robust protections for the exercise of religious beliefs and moral convictions, free from government punishment, and has been upheld by the Supreme Court. But HHS is now proposing to amend them yet again. It is past time for HHS to leave well enough alone in this regard.
“While we are pleased that the proposed regulations appear, at this early stage of review, to retain the bulk of the existing religious exemption, their elimination of protections for moral convictions is disheartening. The proper reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs is not, as the proposed regulations claim, to make it free for women to sterilize themselves, but rather to relieve the burdens that our laws and culture place both on mothers and those who may become mothers.
“We regret that it is necessary to revisit this matter and will file more thorough comments with HHS at the appropriate time.”
More information on the HHS contraceptive mandate, the USCCB’s previous comments on this rulemaking, and other regulations impacting religious freedom is available at www.usccb.org/do-no-harm.
Posted on 02/1/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
WASHINGTON - Pope Francis has appointed Most Reverend Mario E. Dorsonville, auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Washington, as Bishop of Houma-Thibodaux. The appointment was publicized in Washington, D.C. on February 1, 2023, by Archbishop Christophe Pierre, apostolic nuncio to the United States.
The biography for Bishop Dorsonville may be found here.
The Diocese of Houma-Thibodaux is comprised of 3,500 square miles in the State of Louisiana and has a total population of 257,423 of which 81,512 are Catholic.
Posted on 01/31/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
WASHINGTON – The universal Catholic Church will celebrate World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life on February 2, 2023 and in parishes throughout the United States over the weekend of February 4-5.
Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing and chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations, reflected that World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life provides a special opportunity for the faithful to give thanks to God for those living a consecrated vocation. “We give thanks to God today for continuing to call men and women to serve him as consecrated persons in the Church. May each of us be inspired by their example to love God above all things and serve him in all that we do.”
The USCCB’s Committee on Clergy, Consecrated Life and Vocations commissioned the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University to conduct its annual survey of newly professed men and women religious in the United States. The survey, Women and Men Professing Perpetual Vows in Religious Life: The Profession Class of 2022 polled religious who professed perpetual vows in 2022 in a religious congregation, province, or monastery based in the United States. Of the 168 identified newly professed, a total of 114 responded for an overall response rate of 67%.
Some of the major findings and highlights of the report are:
Prayers of the Faithful and a short bulletin quote for World Day of Prayer for Consecrated Life is available on the USCCB website. Profiles of the Profession Class of 2022 and the full CARA report is available here.
Posted on 01/31/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
KINSHASA, Congo (CNS) -- The people of Congo are more precious than any of the gems or minerals found in the earth beneath their feet, yet they have been slaughtered by warmongers and exploited by prospectors, Pope Francis said.
"This country, so immense and full of life, this diaphragm of Africa, struck by violence like a blow to the stomach, has seemed for some time to be gasping for breath," the pope said Jan. 31 at a meeting with Congo's President Felix Tshisekedi, other government and political leaders, diplomats and representatives of civil society.
Poverty, internal displacement, crime and violence plague the Congolese people. The United Nations and human rights organizations say more than 100 armed groups are operating in the country, sowing terror particularly in the east.
Yet, according to the U.S. State Department country report, for Africa "regional stability and security is dependent on durable peace" in Congo, "the largest country in sub-Saharan Africa," one bordering nine other nations and home to diamonds and vast mineral reserves. It also has the largest Catholic population in Africa and has the sixth most Catholics of any nation after Brazil, Mexico, the Philippines, the United States and Italy.
Tens of thousands of people lined the streets from the airport to the city center, cheering as the pope passed by in the popemobile. Many children and teens were dressed in their school uniforms, parishioners proudly held banners welcoming the pope in the name of their communities and many of the women wore brightly colored cotton dresses with images of the pope.
Speaking to several hundred leaders in the garden of the Palais de la Nation, his official residence, President Tshisekedi told the pope that the welcome and harmony that had characterized Congo for centuries has, in the past 30 years, "been undermined by the enemies of peace as well as terrorist groups, mainly from neighboring countries."
"Indeed," he told the pope, with "the inaction and silence of the international community, more than 10 million people have had been their lives taken from them atrociously. Innocent women, even pregnant ones, are raped and disemboweled, young people and children have their throats slit, families, the elderly and children are condemned to brave fatigue and exhaustion, wandering far from their homes in search of peace because of the atrocities committed by these terrorists in the service of foreign interests," who want to exploit the countries natural resources.
Pope Francis, responding to the president, added that Congo is suffering from a "forgotten genocide," one the world must recognize.
Returning to his prepared text, the pope chose diamonds as the key image in his first speech in Congo, insisting that "you, all of you, are infinitely more precious than any treasure found in this fruitful soil!"
In a speech frequently interrupted by applause and shouts of "Amen," the pope urged the Congolese people to demand the respect they deserve; he pleaded with the country's political leaders to put the common good ahead of greed and a lust for power; and he begged the international community to help Congo, not plunder it.
"Diamonds are usually rare," he said, "yet here they are abundant."
"If that is true of the material wealth hidden in the soil, it is even more true of the spiritual wealth present within your hearts," he said. "For it is from hearts that peace and development are born, because, with God's help, men and women are capable of justice and of forgiveness, of concord and reconciliation, of commitment and perseverance in putting to good use the many talents they have received."
Every person in Congo has a part to play, Pope Francis insisted.
"May violence and hatred no longer find room in the heart or on the lips of anyone, since these are inhuman and un-Christian sentiments that arrest development and bring us back to a gloomy past," he said.
Referencing both the loss of life and the term for diamonds mined to finance conflict, the pope said that "the poison of greed has smeared (Congo's) diamonds with blood."
The developed world, he said, "often closes its eyes, ears and mouth" to the tragedy occurring in Congo while greedily buying up coltan, a mineral used in mobile phones, and other natural resources from the country.
"Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa," Pope Francis insisted to applause and the stopping of feet. "Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered."
At the same, the pope did not let the Congolese off the hook, especially those who promote members of their own ethnic group or political party to the detriment of their neighbors, "thus nurturing spirals of hatred and violence."
"From a chemical standpoint, it is interesting that diamonds are made up of simple atoms of carbon which, if differently bonded, form graphite: in effect, the difference between the brilliance of the diamond and the darkness of graphite comes from the way the individual atoms are arranged," he said.
Different ethnic groups or cultural traditions do not create tension automatically, but it depends on people and the way they choose to live together, the pope said. "Their willingness or not to encounter one another, to be reconciled and to start anew makes the difference between the grimness of conflict and a radiant future of peace and prosperity."
Pope Francis also called for greater respect for the environment, including the Congo rainforest, second in size only to the Amazon. The pope called it "one of the great green lungs of the world."
But, he said, efforts to protect it must be carried out in cooperation with the people who live there and rely on it for their livelihoods.
Posted on 01/30/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis reaffirmed that homosexuality is not a crime, and that any sexual act outside of marriage is a sin, in a written response to a request for clarification about his remarks during a recent interview with the Associated Press.
In an interview with the agency televised and published in Spanish Jan. 25, the pope had said that "being homosexual is not a crime. It is not a crime." He defined as "unjust" laws that criminalize homosexuality or homosexual activity and urged church members, including bishops, to show "tenderness" as God does with each of his children.
In the interview the pope said, "We are all children of God, and God loves us as we are and for the strength that each of us fights for our dignity. Being homosexual is not a crime. It is not a crime."
Then, he voiced an objection to that statement, followed by how he would respond to that objection, saying, "'Yes, but it is a sin.' Fine, but first let us distinguish between a sin and a crime."
"It's also a sin to lack charity with one another," he added.
U.S. Jesuit Father James Martin, who is editor of Outreach.faith, which provides news and resources for LGBTQ Catholics, wrote to the pope asking him to clarify his statement, which some media outlets had reported as the pope saying being gay is a sin.
Father Martin published the pope's written reply in Spanish Jan. 27. The pope acknowledged, "In a televised interview, where we spoke with natural and conversational language, it is understandable that there would not be such precise definitions."
"It is not the first time that I speak of homosexuality and of homosexual persons. And I wanted to clarify that it is not a crime, in order to stress that criminalization is neither good nor just," the pope wrote.
"When I said it is a sin, I was simply referring to Catholic moral teaching, which says that every sexual act outside of marriage is a sin. Of course, one must also consider the circumstances, which may decrease or eliminate fault," he wrote.
"As you can see, I was repeating something in general. I should have said, 'It is a sin, as is any sexual act outside of marriage,'" he wrote. "This is to speak of 'the matter' of sin, but we know well that Catholic morality not only takes into consideration the matter, but also evaluates freedom and intention; and this, for every kind of sin."
"And I would tell whoever wants to criminalize homosexuality that they are wrong," the pope wrote.
Posted on 01/27/2023 09:30 AM (USCCB News Releases)
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Francis' fifth trip to the African continent will highlight gestures of peace and reconciliation, consoling the victims of violence but also emphasizing the importance of each person sowing peace in the family, the neighborhood and the nation.
The pope is scheduled to travel to Kinshasa, Congo, Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before making an ecumenical pilgrimage to Juba, South Sudan, Feb. 3-5 with Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
"It is enough, or it should be enough, that the pope is going to support the peace process; but the fact that he and his colleagues have committed to doing this as a joint visit should be understood to be a spectacular commitment to the peace process itself," said Chris Trott, the British ambassador to the Holy See and former British envoy to Sudan and South Sudan.
Although the civil wars in both Congo and South Sudan officially have ended, the people continue to suffer from horrific acts of violence, which force the large-scale displacement of communities and keep much of the population in poverty.
Both countries are rich in natural resources, which makes the poverty even more glaring, but also gives the powerful or the disgruntled something else to fight over.
Pope Francis frequently decries the notion that "Africa is to be exploited." As he told the Comboni Missionaries' magazine in an interview published Jan. 14, the world's powerful nations gave Africa "independence halfway: they give them economic independence from the ground up, but they keep the subsoil to exploit," extracting oil or minerals and paying only a pittance.
Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, the nuncio to Congo, told reporters in Kinshasa Jan. 10 that Pope Francis' plan to visit the country is an acknowledgement of Congo as the African nation with the most Catholics -- close to 50 million faithful -- and "the country of the first black bishop of the African continent," Nzingo Mpemba, also known as Bishop Henrique de Portugal, the son of the ruler of Kongo who was ordained a bishop in the early 1500s.
The theme of the pope's visit, "All reconciled in Jesus Christ," he said, is a call to the Congolese to set aside grudges and unite to end the great suffering of their compatriots who live under the constant threat of violence, particularly in the eastern part of the country.
Pope Francis will stay in Kinshasa, the capital, but his original itinerary for Congo included a day trip east to North Kivu province for Mass and a meeting with the survivors of the conflicts there.
But the violence in North Kivu has flared up again, canceling that part of the papal trip.
In early December Catholics and other Christians took to the streets in a protest supported by the Congolese bishops. In a message read at the rally, the bishops accused Rwanda, and to some extent Uganda, of perpetrating the violence in the East through the M23 rebel militia.
The Congolese government also has blamed Rwanda and Uganda for sponsoring the rebel movement and using the rebels as cover to steal minerals that are abundant in eastern Congo.
But M23 is one of only dozens of armed groups operating in the area. The Allied Democratic Forces, a group affiliated with Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Pentecostal church in Kasindi Jan. 15, which killed at least 14 people.
In November Bishop Placide Lubamba Ndjibu of Kasongo issued a public appeal to the government to restore order in the East.
People need lasting solutions to the disputes over gold mining in eastern Congo, which, he said, are "sowing a climate of terror and desolation, accompanied by deaths, rapes, school closures, the destruction of food reserves and looting of livestock."
Looting livestock is a major problem in South Sudan as well and is related to the problem of forcing young women into early marriage, a problem Irish Loreto Sister Orla Treacy has been fighting for decades.
In 2005, six years before South Sudan achieved its independence from Sudan after 50 years of war, Sister Treacy and two other Irish sisters arrived in Rumbek to open a school for girls. The students were accepted only if their parents signed a promise to allow the girls to complete high school and not marry them off in exchange for cattle, which is the most stable currency in the land and the chief sign of wealth.
Sister Treacy told Catholic News Service Jan. 15 that so far, "we have had a good year in Rumbek, the best, I can say" in terms of peace and of keeping students in school. "We have a new, strong governor who has worked with the different communities to try and help to build peace. He has also passed a bill against early and forced marriage. We still get troubles but at least now we can quote the governor and tell families to go to him if they don't like our answer!"
The Irish sister and some 50 students and members of justice and peace committees in the Diocese of Rumbek were in training in mid-January. They are planning a nine-day, 200-mile walk to Juba to join Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and the Rev. Greenshields for an ecumenical prayer service for peace.
The visit, she said, can "help to shine a spotlight on South Sudan. We hope that it will generate world interest and also help push our leaders to keep working for peace and development."
Ambassador Trott, who was involved in negotiating the 2018 peace agreement among the major actors in South Sudan's civil war, said the ongoing conflicts have an ethnic element because they are regional, but "at its heart is about access and control of resources," including oil, minerals, water and rich farmland. "This fight has always been about who benefits from those resources and who controls them."
"This is where the churches come in," he said, because a peace process can address power and resource sharing, but the success of an agreement depends on a willingness to implement it and to reconcile with former enemies for the good of the nation.
"Diplomats can only talk to their heads or about their pockets," the ambassador said. "But I think the three ecumenical leaders can really appeal to people's sense of responsibility" and what they want their legacy to be.
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