Pope Francis has begun a six-day visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, aiming to bring a message of peace to two countries riven by poverty, conflict and what Francis has called a lingering “colonialist mentality” that still considers Africa ripe for exploitation.
He landed at Kinshasa’s airport and was greeted by tens of thousands of Congolese who lined the main road into the city, some standing three or four deep, with children in school uniforms taking the front row.
“The pope is 86 years old but he came anyway. It is a sacrifice and the Congolese people will not forget it,” Sultan Ntambwe said as he waited for his arrival.
Aid groups are hoping the trip will shine a spotlight on two of the world’s forgotten conflicts and rekindle international attention on some of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises, amid donor fatigue and new aid priorities in Ukraine.
But the pope’s trip will also bring him face-to-face with the future of the Catholic Church.
Africa is one of the only places in the world where the Catholic flock is growing.
That makes the trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as he seeks to make his mark on reshaping the church as a “field hospital for wounded souls” where all are welcome and poor people have a special pride of place.
“Yes, Africa is in turmoil and is also suffering from the invasion of exploiters,” the pope told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
But he said the church can also learn from the continent and its people.
“We need to listen to their culture: dialogue, learn, talk, promote,” Francis said, suggesting that his message would differ from the scolding tone St John Paul II used in 1980 and 1985 when he reminded Congolese priests and bishops of the need to stick to their celibacy vows.
Congo, Francis’s first stop, stands out as the African country with most Catholics.
Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians – 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis’s main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as two million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of the pope’s biggest Masses ever.
Banners emblazoned with the pope’s image carried messages including “Pope Francis, the city of Kinshasa welcomes you with joy.”
Jean-Louis Mopina, 47, said he walked about 45 minutes to Kinshasa’s airport before the pope’s arrival on Tuesday.
“He has come like a pilgrim sent by God,” Mr Mopina said. “His blessing will give us peace in our hearts.”
On the eve of the pope’s visit, President Felix Tshisekedi met with foreign diplomats in Kinshasa and told them the visit was a sign of solidarity “particularly with the battered populations of the eastern part of the country, prey to acts of violence and intolerance that you are witnessing”.
The trip was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of the pope’s knee problems.
It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the so-called Islamic State terrorist group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Programme.
Instead, the pope will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy.
The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
The second leg of his trip will bring him to South Sudan, the world’s youngest country where continued fighting has hampered implementation of a 2018 peace deal to end a civil war.
The South Sudan stop also marks a novelty in the history of papal travel, in that the pope will be joined on the ground by the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt Rev Iain Greenshields.
The aim of the three-way visit is to show a united Christian commitment to helping South Sudan make progress on the implementation of the 2018 accord.
The pope presided over a similar joint initiative in 2019 in the Vatican when he famously got down on hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan’s rival leaders, begging them to make peace.