Pope Francis celebrated Mass at Bangui’s Barthélémy Boganda Stadium this morning with thousands of the faithful from the Central African Republic in attendance.
It was the last event on the Pope’s schedule, and during the service he urged the Catholic community to participate in the Year of Mercy by moving forward courageously toward peace and reconciliation.
The country’s bishops chose “Cross to the Other Side” as the theme for the Pope’s visit, and he told people in the stadium that even though the elections are only four weeks away, they are still only in midstream in their journey to the side of peace.
All Christians, he said, need to break the habits of sin and division, which are “ever ready to rise up again at the prompting of the devil. How often this happens in our world and in these times of conflict, hate and war! How easy it is to be led into selfishness, distrust, violence, destructiveness, vengeance, indifference to and exploitation of those who are most vulnerable.”
Pope Francis urged the country’s Catholics to hold fast to their faith, sharing it with all they meet through words and, especially, gestures of care, peace and reconciliation.
According to Vatican Radio, Pope Francis said that in the face of the violent conflict in the country Christians must preserve in their faith and show “missionary commitment”.
“Jesus is crossing the river with us. He is risen from the dead; henceforth the trials and sufferings which we experience are always opportunities opening up to a new future, provided we are willing to follow him,” the Pope said.
“Christians of Central Africa, each of you is called to be, through perseverance in faith and missionary commitment, artisans of the human and spiritual renewal of your country.”
At the end of Mass, Francis gave a special greeting “of joy and fraternity” to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, wishing him — “from the heart of Africa” — a happy feast of St Andrew.
“I ask the Lord to bless our sister churches,” he said.
The evening before, after celebrating Mass with priests, religious and catechists, the Pope joined the young people who had watched the liturgy from outside the cathedral. They were holding a prayer vigil into the night, with special permission to stay outside the cathedral beyond the 8pm curfew in the violence-torn city.
The centerpiece of the event, though, was the sacrament of confession, which Pope Francis personally administered to five youths.
He urged the young people to pray often, to forgive those who hurt them and to be courageous enough to stay in their country and work for peace.