Pope Francis came as a pilgrim where Jesus had come as a refugee. Joseph and Mary fled to Africa to seek refuge from Herod’s slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. (Matthew 2:13-17) Pope Francis came “as a pilgrim of peace and an apostle of hope.”
Breaking precedent, as he is wont to do, the Holy Father carried his message of mercy, peace and brotherhood to a trilogy of African republics seeking to make peace a reality rather than a distant dream. All three nations, Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic (CAR) have large, vibrant and growing Catholic populations that are part of the “new Christendom” emerging on the continent.
In a sense, the Pope’s visit is a modern parable that manifests the disciple’s call to not only welcome the poor, the marginalized and the homeless, but to seek them out as an instrument of the mercy of Jesus.
As a symbol of his mission of mercy, Pope Francis opened the Holy Doors of the cathedral in Bengui, capital of the war stricken CAR eight days before the official start of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, proclaiming, “The Holy Year of Mercy comes early to this land, a land that has suffered for many years.” It was the first time a pope had opened Holy Doors outside of Rome.
Large crowds of cheering people lined the streets and filled the cathedrals and stadiums where the Pontiff celebrated public Masses, always punctuated by a strong military presence. He visited mosques and met with ecumenical leaders reminding all that “an essential characteristic” of being Christian is “love of enemies, which protects us from the temptation to seek revenge and from the spiral of endless retaliation.”
On his final day he met with the “three saints of Bengui,” the Rev. Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council; and Archbishop Diedonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference, who have led the struggle to bring peace, brotherhood and stability to the CAR.
The pilgrim Pope has come and gone. The three saints remain. Let us pray for their success.