‘Pope of the Peripheries’ at his boldest

Originally at: http://www.cruxnow.com/church/2015/11/30/africa-trip-captured-the-pope-of-the-peripheries-at-his-boldest/

by Inés San Martín

BANGUI, Central African Republic – Pope Francis has taken 11 foreign trips to date, and while each has reflected his priorities and outlook in some way, his Nov. 25-30 outing to Africa may be remembered as the single journey that best captured his entire agenda in miniature.

In effect, the trip allowed Francis to deliver on arguably his two most keenly felt personal ambitions: Making the word’s peripheries the center of the Church, and centering the Church on God’s mercy.

In terms of specifics, both the themes and the itinerary of his stops in Kenya, Uganda, and the Central African Republic were driven by this pope’s signature social and political causes, including peace, the poor, the environment, inter-religious dialogue, reconciliation, the sick, and the young.

Beneath it all, mercy was a constant refrain.

On Sunday, Francis celebrated a Mass in Central African Republic (CAR), where violence between rival Christian and Muslim militias has left at least 6,000 people dead. The celebration featured the opening of a Holy Door, a tradition which usually marks the beginning of a Jubilee year. He performed the rite in Bangui, the capital, eight days before he’s scheduled to do so again by opening the Holy Door at St. Peter’s Basilica on Dec. 8.

“The Holy Year of Mercy came early to this land, a land that for many years has been suffering,” the pope said. “All the suffering countries in the world that are going through the cross of war are also represented in this land.”

The visit to CAR has been an especially apt setting for that message of mercy, bringing Francis to the world’s third poorest nation and also representing the first time a modern-day pontiff has set foot in an active war zone.

“All of us ask [God] for mercy, reconciliation, forgiveness and love,” Francis said before pushing open the doors of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, using two hands to get the job done.

How determined was Francis to deliver that message in person, despite the enormous security fears surrounding the visit?

On his Alitalia flight to Africa, the pontiff visited the cockpit to greet the pilots. Only semi-jokingly, he told them that if they didn’t feel comfortable landing in the Central African Republic, they should do a fly-over and give him a parachute, because one way or the other, he was getting there.

Monday brought the single boldest moment of the trip, as Francis headed into a battle-scarred neighborhood of Bangui, considered a no-go zone even by international observers because the area is under the control of jihadist forces.

In an illustration of how on-edge the situation remains, rumors swept Bangui on Sunday that three young Christians had been shot to death outside a church just 500 yards away from a mosque Francis was to visit the next day. In the end, it turned out that no one had been killed, although two Christians had been kidnapped, but were returned unharmed four hours later.

During his visit to the mosque, Francis declared that “Christians and Muslims are brothers and sisters.”

Although the pontiff did not refer to the recent Paris terrorist attacks or other incidents in which religion has been an element of violence, he strove to lift up another face of faith.

“Those who claim to be men of God must also be men and women of peace,” he said. “Together, we must say no to hatred, to revenge, and to violence, particularly that violence which is perpetrated in the name of a religion or of God himself.”

Speaking to his own flock in the country, Francis on Sunday also told priests, consecrated men and women, and pastoral workers that they can provide more than “the alms of bread” to those who have experienced suffering.

Believers can also offer, he said, “the alms of justice, the alms of attention and goodness.”

Sounding at times like an Old Testament prophet, Francis implored all those who make “unjust use of the weapons of this world” to “lay down these instruments of death!” He called on them instead to “arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace.”

In a nation that’s 80 percent Christian and 15 percent Muslim, where religious hatred often fuels conflict, Francis preached forgiveness.

“The first thing is to never hate, to learn forgiveness,” he said. “If you have no hatred in your heart, if you forgive, you’ll be victorious. You’ll be victorious in life’s most difficult battle: love. That’s where peace comes from.”

CAR was the third stop in Africa for Francis, after Kenya and Uganda.

He kicked things off by making an unusual stop at a United Nations compound in Nairobi, the Kenyan capital, marking the first time a pope has visited a UN facility in the developing world.

Francis focused on the fight against man-made climate change.

Speaking just days before the opening of a UN climate change summit in Paris, Pope Francis warned it would be “catastrophic” if global leaders fail to ratify significant reductions in the use of fossil fuels.

The pope said that the representatives from 195 countries, including US President Barack Obama, are “confronted with a choice which cannot be ignored: either to improve or to destroy the environment.”

Earlier that morning, the pope advocated for the rights of the poor. On a visit to the notorious Kangemi slum, he launched a blistering attack on “new forms of colonialism” that exacerbate the “dreadful injustice of urban exclusion.” He insisted that services such as access to safe drinking water represent a “basic and universal human right.”

After telling the thousands gathered to see him that he has a special place in his heart for the poor, he criticized wealthy minorities who hoard resources and extolled the values of solidarity and mutual support in impoverished neighborhoods.

He praised the poor for what he called their “stubborn resistance” to what’s inauthentic or secondary, saying they cling to “Gospel values which an opulent society, anaesthetized by unbridled consumption, would seem to have forgotten.”

Another pillar of the pope’s first-ever trip to Africa was interreligious and inter-Christian dialogue, an obvious priority on a continent that in recent years has seen a worrying surge in religious fundamentalism.

On that front, a peak moment came in Uganda as Francis visited a museum depicting the torture and execution of 45 Catholic and Anglican martyrs in the late 19th century.

Visibly shocked, Francis spent several minutes contemplating graphic images of the horrors the young men endured under King Mwanga II. From there, he went to a nearby Catholic shrine in honor of the martyrs where he celebrated a Mass.

In front of 300,000 people who had waited hours to see him, Francis honored all the martyrs, Catholic and non-Catholic, insisting that they offer the most powerful witness possible to an “ecumenism of blood.”

Strikingly, Francis never directly engaged two hot-button issues that typically surround papal outings to Africa: HIV/AIDS and the use of condoms to fight the disease, and gay rights in the context of the increasingly punitive climate for homosexuality in several African nations.

The HIV/AIDS issue, however, found an echo during a youth festival in Uganda when 24-year-old Winnie Nansumba told the pontiff that she lost both parents to the disease and was born with it herself.

“Take charge of your life and know your (HIV) status,” she told the estimated 150,000 young people gathered at a local air strip. “AIDS is real, but it can be prevented and managed.”

Corruption was an issue the pope did choose to tackle head-on, picking up on a keen local concern. The African Union estimates that corruption costs the continent $150 billion annually, roughly seven times the total of all foreign aid provided to Africa by developed nations.

Candidly, Francis conceded that corruption is something to which “not even the Vatican is immune.”

Predictably, it was during a youth rally that he delivered his strongest words on the matter. On Friday, after receiving a rock-star welcome at Kasarani stadium, he decried that corruption is “a path to death.”

Beyond such social commentary, Francis repeatedly insisted that he wanted his first pilgrimage to the “continent of hope,” as he called Africa upon arriving in Kampala on Friday, to renew the faith of the people he met.

Virtually all his public addresses – especially those he delivered off-the-cuff in Spanish, when the most authentically personal side of Francis tends to emerge most clearly – have featured a call to prayer.

His meeting with youth in CAR was typical.

“Running away from the challenges life presents is never the solution,” the pope said. “It’s necessary to have the courage to resist, to fight for what’s good.”

“Above all, [we can] pray,” he said. “Prayer brings us closer to God, who’s almighty.”

In a similar spirit, Francis urged his African followers to be “bearers of the good news,” carrying the Gospel to members of every ethnic group, religions and culture on their continent.

“How can our brothers and sisters believe in Christ,” he said, “if the Word is neither proclaimed nor heard?”

Again and again throughout the trip, Francis drove home one final cornerstone principle of both his own spirituality and his agenda as pope: The absolute priority of the poor in proclaiming and living the Christian message.

“The path of Jesus began on the peripheries,” Francis said Friday in the Kenyan slum. “It goes from the poor and with the poor, toward others.”

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