In an unprecedented gesture last month, Pope Francis kissed the feet of several South Sudanese leaders, who were visiting the Vatican for a retreat, in a plea for peace in the country.
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir told EWTN News that the exchange, which garnered attention around the world, left him “almost trembling.”
“I felt humbled at the humility of the Holy Father, to bend down on the ground and kiss my feet,” Kiir told EWTN News in an interview May 7.
“I was almost trembling because that thing has not happened before, except at the time when Jesus knelt down to wash the feet of his disciples. And it should have been the opposite; his disciples should have been the ones to wash his feet…this is what came into my mind when the Pope knelt down.”
Kiir and former vice-president Riek Machar met with the pope April 10-11 during a retreat at the Vatican. The pope hosted the retreat specifically for the leaders, who have been at war with each other for years.
Pope Francis encouraged the South Sudanese leaders to “seek what unites you, beginning with the fact that you belong to one and the same people, and to overcome all that divides you,” and told them he was praying for them to become peacemakers, who “build peace through dialogue, negotiation and forgiveness.”
“We have clearly heard the cry of the poor and the needy; it rises up to heaven, to the very heart of God our Father, who desires to grant them justice and peace,” he said.
In 2011, the predominantly Christian South Sudan gained independence from Sudan, which has a Muslim majority and been governed mostly by Islamic law since the 1980s.
A five-year civil war began shortly after the country gained its independence. The war has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions more.
The fighting has primarily taken place between those forces loyal to Kiir and rebel groups led by Machar. The war has left 2.1 million people internally displaced, with another 2.5 million refugees, according to the United Nations.
“The purpose of this retreat is for us to stand together before God and to discern his will…It is to reflect on our own lives and the common mission the Lord has entrusted to us, to recognize our enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan, and to commit ourselves, reinvigorated and reconciled, to the building up of your nation,” the pope told Kiir and Machar.
Kiir and Machar signed a tenuous peace agreement in September 2018, which the country’s Catholic bishops have called “fatally flawed” because it does not address the complex root causes of the conflict.
“Taking the decades and years of mistrust that had existed between these different forces, it’s not an easy thing” to have peace established overnight, Bishop Eduardo Kussala of Tombura-Yambio in South Sudan told EWTN News.
Still, Kussala said the bishops’ conference is grateful for and encouraged by the pope’s meeting with the leaders of opposing groups in South Sudan.
“We have tried to keep the momentum, to continue to work harder and make sure peace is actually in this country….It has again energized us” to serve the leaders and the people, he said.
Kiir said his meeting with Pope Francis was especially meaningful for him, as he grew up in an area of South Sudan that was evangelized primarily by Catholic missionaries, from whom he has learned much.
“Jesus came to the world to teach people to forgive and to live in peace with whoever is near you. And we as Catholics, especially in South Sudan, we have learned a lot from God’s teaching,” he reflected.
“This is why [although] we have been under oppression all this time…we’re able to reconcile with those oppressors and then we see them as brothers and sisters.”
Kiir said the moment when the Pope displayed such humility was inspiring to him as the leader of the country.
“The feelings that I had at the moment, at that hour, was that I should try my best when I come back to South Sudan. I should try my best to bring peace to my people, so that people reconcile among themselves, and people do not think of fighting again,” Kiir said.
Bishop Kussala said his diocese has been working on peacebuilding and reconciliation efforts.
“We feel that finding local answers, local solutions to the problems emerging among us is the way forward,” he said.
The diocese recently united with other church groups to bring 10,000 young men back from the bush, where they had been fighters, and to prepare the community for reconciliation and forgiveness.
“Many of them are being integrated into the government and are already working in the different organized forces. Others are also being engaged in social and economic activities,” he said.
Kussala emphasized the spiritual aspect of the peace process. He said it is important to see one another with the eyes of faith.
“[We must] believe that we are all equal, we are children of God. We have to forgive each other, that is our strong weapon,” he said.