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JUBA – On his final day in South Sudan, Pope Francis urged the country’s Catholics not to give into the hatred and violence plaguing the country, but to overcome these temptations with the light of faith.
Speaking to a crowd estimated at 100,000 at the John Garang Mausoleum in Juba, the pope said the message Jesus offers is fundamentally “a message of hope. Jesus knows your anguish and the hope you bear in your hearts, the joys and struggles that mark your lives…Jesus knows you and loves you.”
“If we remain in him, we must never fear, because for us too, every cross will turn into a resurrection, every sadness into hope, and every lament into dancing,” he said.
Pope Francis has been on a Jan. 31-Feb. 5 voyage to Africa, stopping in both the war-torn nations of the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan. In South Sudan, he was joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, for an ecumenical visit.
Both Welby and Greenshields will join the pope on his return flight to Rome.
South Sudan is a majority Christian nation, where 60 percent of inhabitants adhere to some form of Christianity, with Catholics and Anglicans being the most numerous. Catholics themselves number roughly 7.2 million out of the country’s overall population of 11 million.
After challenging national authorities over a delay in the country’s ongoing peace process and meeting with South Sudanese church leaders, as well as a group of those internally displaced by South Sudan’s war, he celebrated Mass for the Catholic community on the final day of his trip, before heading to the airport to return to Rome.
In his homily, Francis focused on the biblical passage in which Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.”
Jesus says this immediately after offering the Beatitudes, meaning the Beatitudes themselves “are the salt of the Christian life, because they bring the wisdom of heaven down to earth. They revolutionize the standards of this world and our usual way of thinking,” he said.
The Beatitudes, the pope said, tell Christians that in order to have a happy and fulfilled life, “we must not aim to be strong, rich and powerful, but humble, meek and merciful; to do no evil to anyone, but to be peacemakers for everyone.”
“If we put the Beatitudes into practice, if we embody the wisdom of Jesus, we will give savor not only to our own lives, but also to the life of society and of the country in which we live,” he said, noting that many people might feel small and powerless in front of the country’s many problems.
Plagued by an internal war that has left millions dead and displaced, and forced swaths of the population into abject poverty, with the number of those dependent on humanitarian aid continuing to rise, South Sudan currently ranks fourth on the list of the world’s most neglected displacement crises, and it is also represents Africa’s largest refugee crisis.
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“In the name of Jesus and of his Beatitudes, let us lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge, in order to take up those of prayer and charity,” he said.
“Let us overcome the dislikes and aversions that over time have become chronic and risk pitting tribes and ethnic groups against one another. Let us learn to apply the salt of forgiveness to our wounds; salt burns but it also heals,” he said, urging believers to “refuse, once and for all, to repay evil with evil.”
As followers of Christ, Christians, he said, “are called to shine forth like a city set on a hill, like a lamp whose flame may not be extinguished.”
“May your Christian communities shine radiantly, so that, like cities built on a hill, they will shed the light of goodness on all and show that it is beautiful and possible to live with generosity and self-giving, to have hope, and together to build a reconciled future,” he said.
Immediately after Mass, Pope Francis led faithful in praying the traditional Marian prayer of the Angelus, taking a moment afterwards to thank all those who during his visit came out to see him, at times waiting for hours under the burning sun in temperatures that reached up to 96 degrees Fahrenheit.
“South Sudan possesses a courageous Church,” he said, pointed to South Sudanese Saint Josephine Bakhita, who was kidnapped and enslaved as a child, and later brought to Europe to work as a maid. She was eventually granted freedom and became a nun, offering her life in charitable service to others.
“Hope is the word I would leave with each of you, as a gift to share, a seed to bear fruit,” he said, saying Saint Bakhita’s example is a sign that “women, especially here, are a sign of hope.” He extended a special blessing to all women in the country.
Francis also thanked both Welby and Greenshields for their presence, telling South Sudanese that “we will continue to accompany your steps and do all we can to make them steps of peace, steps to peace.”
Pope Francis said that as he heads back to Rome, “You are in my heart, you are in our hearts, you are in the hearts of Christians worldwide! Never lose hope. And lose no opportunity to build peace.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen