Pope Francis I has rescheduled his long-delayed trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan for 31 January to 5 February 2023 – cutting out a stop over in the troubled eastern DRC, but fulfilling a long-held wish to accompany other Christian leaders to South Sudan.
On Thursday, the Vatican published the itinerary of the trip, which had originally been scheduled for last July but was postponed because Pope Francis was undergoing therapy for strained knee ligaments.
The 85-year-old pontiff is still using a wheelchair but has made other foreign trips in the meantime, suggesting that he is fit for challenging itineraries.
The new schedule roughly matches the original, with one significant exception: initially the pope had planned to celebrate mass in the eastern Congolese city of Goma en route to South Sudan.
Now, Francis will meet a delegation of faithful and “victims” from Goma in the Congolese capital, Kinshasa.
Latest ceasefire broken in eastern DRC
Tens of thousands of Congolese have been displaced – with many heading toward Goma – amid renewed clashes between government soldiers and M23 rebels.
A ceasefire to end the latest round of fighting was supposed to go into effect last Friday, but hasn’t held.
After the papal visit to the DRC, Francis will be joined by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the Right Reverend Iain Greenshields, for a first-of-its-kind trip by the leaders of the three Christian churches to Juba, South Sudan, from 3-5 February.
There, the three will celebrate an ecumenical prayer service together, and meet with displaced South Sudanese people.
The visit seeks to boost a 2018 agreement aimed at ending civil war in South Sudan and has been in the works for years.
However, it has been repeatedly postponed because of the security situation on the ground, and then in July because of Francis’ health.
Welby and Greenshields both welcomed word that the trip would finally go ahead.
“I am genuinely humbled at the opportunity to support our brothers and sisters in South Sudan in the search for peace, reconciliation and justice,” Greenshields said in a statement, which noted that the Church of Scotland had been invited to “represent the Presbyterian family due to its strong partnership with the Presbyterian Church of South Sudan“.
Welby, for his part, added that all three leaders shared a desire to “stand in solidarity” with the people of South Sudan.
In one of his more memorable gestures, Pope Francis invited South Sudan’s rival leaders to the Vatican in 2019 for a prayer and knelt down and kissed their feet while begging them to make peace.