Pope’s straight-talking in South Sudan
Pope Francis’ Ecumenical Peace Pilgrimage to South Sudan, Friday 3-Sunday 5 February 2023, was a special experience for Irishwoman Noelle Fitzpatrick and her team at the Jesuit Refugee Service in South Sudan. The Pope met with the team and refugees with whom they work, along with Jesuits who had travelled to Juba to see him.
On Friday morning, to start proceedings Fr Kizito the Provincial of the Eastern African Province said Mass with them all. On Saturday they attended a special Ecumenical Prayer gathering with the Pope and that was also the day the Pope met with various delegations including Noelle and her JRS team. On Sunday, the last day of the pilgrimage they attended the Mass celebrated by the Pope in the John Garrang Mausoleum and their refugee delegation met with the Pope.
Altogether representatives from field teams in Western Equatoria, and also representatives from the Parish Leadership team in Maban, as well as three leaders from the refugee communities in Maban, joined the JRS team in Juba to meet with Pope Francis.
Two JRS representatives had the opportunity to greet Pope Francis at the meeting with IDPs on Saturday afternoon. Then, a further 6 (being 1 male and 1 female from each of our 3 locations) were able to greet him after his meeting with the Jesuits on Saturday. “We had a few gifts from Western Equatoria and Maban to present (see photo) and our team asked that he bless a big drum of water, which he did and which they shared with one another.”
Pope Francis delivered some powerful messages whilst on his pilgrimage, says Noelle. People were particularly impacted by the homilies of both the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury and she noted that women especially appreciated their bold statements regarding the need to respect, protect, value, and enable women lest there be no future for South Sudan. “This was something very meaningful to them,” says Noelle, “How it can manifest in change is a question but they were powerful, bold, and clear statements of what is not acceptable regarding the treatment of women in South Sudan.”
She was also struck by what Pope Francis said in front of Government Authorities, Diplomats and Civil society. “He was emphasizing ‘no more’, ‘actions now and not words’, telling the country’s leadership that they will be remembered or forgotten based on how they respond to meeting the needs of the people, and promoting the common good.” says Noelle, adding that, “This bold, honest and straight forward speech is itself is very rare and a great encouragement to people. And the people I have spoken with have experienced a great sense of solidarity and a depth of feeling of Pope Francis in identifying with their suffering”,
The UN-NGO community appreciated the emphasis Pope Francis put on the need to respect and protect humanitarian workers who have come to South Sudan to help, according to Noelle who points out the country has been ranked among the top three most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers over the past years.
The JRS team had been preparing for their visit and that of other Jesuits for some time. “We’ve had to repaint a few things, get some plumbing issues looked at, get extra mattresses, and some simple food, to accommodate our visitors,” says Noelle, adding that they were happy to do all these preparations so that the many visitors would feel supported and “be able to connect well with and experience deeply the public events and liturgies with the Pope.”
They were delighted to host them because one of the challenges facing the JRS was finding a way to ferry them to Juba. Air travel is the only way and very expensive but Noelle explains that along with the Nunciature they managed to solve the problem and were able to host them all in the JRS compound over those days of the Papal visit.
“I believe we may be the only organization who fought to have refugee representation at the meeting with Pope Francis on Saturday afternoon – certainly from Maban, which is the biggest refugee hosting area in South Sudan. I’m happy about that,” says Noelle, adding, “There were bodies everywhere, but, it was great to be able to welcome people and enable their participation in these historic few days.”