Rome Newsroom, Jan 30, 2023 / 12:00 pm (CNA).
Pope Francis visited the Basilica of St. Mary Major on Monday to entrust his upcoming trip to Africa to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The pope will depart Rome on Tuesday morning for the capital city of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country home to more than 52 million Catholics.
It will be the first papal trip to Congo in 37 years, since John Paul II visited Kinshasa in 1985 when it was the capital of Zaire.
Pope Francis will visit Kinshasa Jan. 31-Feb. 3 before traveling to Juba, the capital of South Sudan, Feb. 3-5.
Francis has called his visit to South Sudan “an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace.” The pope will travel together with the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields.
Pope Francis will be the first pope to visit South Sudan, the world’s newest country, which declared independence from the Republic of the Sudan in 2011.
The pope’s trip to Congo and South Sudan was scheduled to take place last year but was postponed for six months for health reasons.
A stop in the eastern Congolese city of Goma was cut from the pope’s updated schedule amid a resurgence of fighting between the army and rebel groups.
Earlier this month, Islamic State claimed responsibility for a deadly bombing of a church service in the eastern Congolese town of Kasindi that killed at least 14 people. Another armed rebel group, the M23, executed 131 people “as part of a campaign of murders, rapes, kidnappings, and looting against two villages,” the U.N. reported in December.
The pope is scheduled to meet with victims of violence from eastern Congo on Feb. 1 in Kinshasa following a Mass that is expected to draw 2 million people.
South Sudan’s security situation also poses significant challenges to the papal trip. The U.N. reported last month that an escalation in violent clashes in South Sudan’s Upper Nile state had killed 166 people and displaced more than 20,000 since August.
Pope Francis has been personally involved with South Sudan’s peace process, inviting formerly warring leaders for a spiritual retreat at the Vatican in 2019. Tens of thousands of people were killed in South Sudan’s civil war, which ended with a peace agreement in 2018.
The pope asked people to pray for his trip to Congo and South Sudan, his first apostolic journey of 2023, in his Sunday Angelus address ahead of the trip.
“These lands, situated in the center of the great African continent, have suffered greatly from lengthy conflicts. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, especially in the east of the country, suffers from armed clashes and exploitation. South Sudan, wracked by years of war, longs for an end to the constant violence that forces many people to be displaced and to live in conditions of great hardship,” he said.
“In South Sudan, I will arrive together with the archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Together, as brothers, we will make an ecumenical pilgrimage of peace, to entreat God and men to bring an end to the hostilities and for reconciliation,” Pope Francis said. “I ask everyone, please, to accompany this journey with their prayers.”