Photo Credit: All photos (unless stated): Vatican Media via Reuters
An ecumenical spiritual retreat led by the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis at the Vatican ended yesterday with Pope Francis kissing the feet of South Sudan’s political leaders. The unprecedented two day retreat was organised in an effort to support the country’s fragile peace deal. The political leaders present at the retreat included South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition leader Vice President Riek Machar. The two are expected to form a national unity government under a fragile peace deal designed to end six years of civil war in the world’s newest country.
Pope Francis shocked the church and political leaders present at the retreat in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, the official Vatican guest house which is also home to Pope Francis, yesterday (Thursday) when he broke off from his prepared remarks to make a personal plea to Sudan’s political leaders.
“To the three of you who have signed the peace agreement, I ask you as a brother: stay in peace”, Pope Francis said. “I am asking you with my heart. Let us go forward. There will be many problems but they will not overcome us. Go ahead, go forward, and resolve the problems. You have begun a process. May it end well.
“There will be struggles and disagreements amongst you, but let this be within the community – inside the office, as it were – but in front of the people, hold hands, united; so as simple citizens you will become fathers of the nation.”
He said he was asking from his heart with his deepest sentiments, before walking towards the leaders and kneeling to kiss their feet; to the evident shock and surprise of those present.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, described the retreat as a “miracle”, saying that “until within 24 hours of it beginning we didn’t know it was going to happen. The atmosphere has been extraordinary and we just see the hand of God in it.”
The retreat was proposed by Archbishop Justin and approved by Pope Francis. It would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. “We have a gathering at the invitation of the Pope, in the Vatican, with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church”, Archbishop Justin said. “These are Churches that have been separated for half a millennium.
“We have the main political leaders from South Sudan, with the main spiritual leaders, gathering together. The political leaders have been at war for six years.
“And we have them all having arrived, the logistics have worked and they are engaging with each other as human beings and there is a profound sense of the Spirit of God at work.”
He added: “if you have seen so many attempts at peace, that you have given up hope that it will ever happen, that you are feeling sceptical and cynical about it, I understand exactly why. But I start with our Christian faith: that we believe in the God that raised Jesus Christ from the dead so all evil and darkness was finally overcome in the resurrection. And resurrection life overflows in ways we can’t predict; so that there is always hope.
And what we have seen in this last 24 hours is not a promise of change; but it is a reasonable hope of change.”
The Anglican primate of South Sudan, Archbishop Justin Bada Arama, used Twitter to tahnk people for their prayers. “We have concluded the healing retreat today at the Vatican”, he said. “We were all commissioned by the Holy Father, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Presbyterian Moderator of Scotland to go and be ambassadors of peace and reconciliation in South Sudan.”
The Anglican Primate of South Sudan, Archbishop Justin Badi Arama, with President Salva Kiir Mayardit and opposition leader Vice President Riek Machar, during an ecumenical retreat at the Vatican this week
Photo: Archbishop Justin Badi Arama via Twitter
As the political and Church leaders were gathered at the Vatican, an ecumenical group of women were taking part in three days of prayer and fasting at the headquarters of the South Sudan Council of Churches in Juba.