At the end of the spiritual retreat in the Casa Santa Marta, Pope Francis called on South Sudan’s civil and Church authorities present to pay attention to the gaze of God and the people. He urges them to “reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us”. The civil war that followed independence has left 400,000 people dead. Currently some seven million people suffer extreme hunger, whilst four million are refugees. The retreat was held on the day Sudanese dictator Omar al-Bashir was removed from power. The pope donated a copy of the Bible to participants.
Vatican City (AsiaNews) – A spiritual retreat was held yesterday in Casa Marta with civil and Church leaders of South Sudan presence. In his address, Pope Francis told those present that “peace is possible. I shall never tire of repeating this: peace is possible! Yet this great gift of God is at the same time a supreme duty on the part of those with responsibility for the people.”
To enhance his message, the pontiff directly implored the leaders present – President Salva Kiir Mayardit, Vice Presidents Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, Taban Deng Gai and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio (widow of South Sudanese leader John Garange) – and knelt before each, kissing their feet.
The retreat is the brainchild of Justin Welby, head of the Anglican communion, the Vatican Secretariat of State Pietro Parolin, and Rev John Chalmers, former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, who were all present at the meeting.
The ecumenical, diplomatic and spiritual character of the gathering stems from the presence of the leaders of South Sudan’s various Christian denominations. After it gained independence in 2011, the country plunged into a civil war that left at least 400,00 dead.
The war appears over now after a power-sharing agreement was signed; however, peace remains fragile. Members of the government took part in the retreat, as did representatives of the Council of Churches of South Sudan.
Today's meeting was held on the same day that the people of Sudan drove from power dictator Omar al-Bashir, who has ruled the country since 1989. During this time, he led a long war against the south until the latter’s independence.
According to one of the preachers at the retreat, Jesuit Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, over half the population of South Sudan, about 7 million, face extreme hunger, whilst the country’s schools have been abandoned due to communal violence, and 4 million people have fled and are now in refugee camps.
Speaking about this situation, the Holy Father said, “My thoughts turn first to all those who have lost their loved ones and their homes, to families that were separated and never reunited, to all the children and the elderly, and the women and men who have suffered terribly on account of the conflicts and violence that have spawned so much death, hunger, hurt and tears. We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace. I think constantly of these suffering souls and I pray that the fires of war will finally die down, so that they can return to their homes and live in serenity. I pray to Almighty God that peace will come to your land, and I ask all men and women of good will to work for peace among your people.”
“The purpose of this retreat,” Francis explained, “is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will. It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation.”
“[S]peaking of the three times that the Lord gazed upon the Apostle Peter [. . .] (cf. Jn 1:41-42),” he stressed that “Jesus’ gaze rests, here and now, on each of us. It is very important to meet this gaze with our inner eye and to ask ourselves: How is Jesus gazing on me today? To what is he calling me? What does the Lord want me to forgive and what in my attitudes does he want me to change? What is my mission and the task that God entrusts to me for the good of his people? That people belongs to him, not to us; indeed, we ourselves are members of the people. It is simply that we have a responsibility and a particular mission: that of serving them.”
“God’s gaze is especially directed to you; it is a look that offers you peace. Yet there is another gaze directed to you: is the gaze of your people, and it expresses their ardent desire for justice, reconciliation and peace. At this moment, I want to assure all your fellow citizens of my spiritual closeness, especially the refugees and the sick, who have remained in the country with great expectations and with bated breath, awaiting the outcome of this historic day. “
The pope called on South Sudan’s leaders, Christian communities and all its people to be builders of peace, and ended his address with a prayer and a blessing. “May the Merciful God touch the heart of every man and every woman in South Sudan, fill them with his grace and blessings, and bring forth rich fruits of lasting peace, even as the waters of the Nile, flowing through your country, bring life and abundant growth.”
At the end of the retreat, the pontiff promised to visit South Sudan along with Justin Welby and Chalmers, and urged the leaders to remain united and then knelt to kiss their feet. He also gave those present a Bible signed by him, Welby and Chalmers with the message: "seek what unites [. . .] overcome all that divides you.”