Pope Francis on Wednesday urged the people of Congo to forgive those who have harmed them as he led a mass in front of an estimated 1 million people in a country wracked by decades of violence.
Many of the faithful spent the night at the capital’s massive Ndolo airport and spent the hours leading up to Francis’ arrival singing, dancing and dressing up for the pope’s first main event on his trip to Africa. This is the first papal visit to the country since St. John Paul II in 1985.
The crowd cheered wildly as Francis began a lazy loop around the airfields in his open popemobile while a few people ran alongside or waved flags. Many women wore dresses and skirts made from pagne, a fabric printed with wax bearing images of Francis or other religious symbols.
“Now I understand my grandmother’s excitement when Pope John Paul II came,” said Julie Mbuyi, a 45-year-old mother of two, who wore a Francis outfit. “She was so excited to see him and the night before she couldn’t close her eyes!”
The crowd cheered again as Argentina’s Pope greeted them in Lingala, one of Congo’s four national languages spoken widely in the capital, Kinshasa. And they listened intently as he preached, urging them to open their hearts to forgiveness, citing the example of Christ who forgave those who betrayed him.
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“He showed them his wounds because forgiveness is born of wounds,” Francis said. “It comes when our wounds do not leave scars of hate, but become a means by which we make way for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity and forgiveness the path to peace.”
Referring to decades of violence, particularly in eastern Congo, that has forced millions to flee their homes, Francis stressed that forgiveness does not mean pretending nothing bad happened. But he said it creates an “amnesty of the heart.”
“What great benefit does it bring us to cleanse our hearts of anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility!” he said.
In his opening address to government officials upon his arrival on Tuesday, Pope Francis condemned centuries of plundering of Africa’s natural and natural resources by foreign powers.
Later on Wednesday, Francis was due to meet with victims of fighting in eastern Congo, where rebel groups have stepped up attacks over the past year to expand their territory. At the gathering, people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities will share their stories.
Francis originally planned to visit the eastern province of North Kivu but had to cancel the stopover due to fighting that has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes and exacerbated a humanitarian crisis in Congo, where over 26 Millions of people suffer from hunger World Food Program.
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“When we heard that Pope Francis was no longer coming to our province of North Kivu, my husband and I decided to come all the way to Kinshasa to see and hear him,” Jeanne Kahota said while looking forward to the beginning of the fair waited. She said she was old enough to remember John Paul’s visit but could not follow him closely.
“That’s why we said to ourselves that an appointment like this doesn’t happen every day, it’s extraordinary and we didn’t want to do without it anymore.”
Around half of the 105 million people in Congo are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.
Fighting in eastern Congo, which is home to more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but reached a peak in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 group, which has been largely inactive for nearly a decade. The rebels have seized tracts of land and are accused by the United Nations and human rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Francis on Tuesday condemned the fighting and planned to reiterate his call for peace during his meeting with victims of the conflict. Victims were also expected to attend a ceremony to forgive their attackers, Vatican organizers said.
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The Vatican, citing local organizers, estimated that 1 million people were in attendance for Francis’ Mass on Wednesday. The fields of the airport have a capacity of 1.5 million people and were not full when the fair started.
Among the faithful was Clément Konde, who had traveled from Kisantu, a city in central Congo province more than 150 kilometers from Kinshasa. He planned to attend all of Francis’ events this week before the pope leaves for South Sudan, the second leg of his African journey.
“To my children and to the children who stayed in my city, I will take the Holy Father’s message, the message of peace and reconciliation,” Konde said.