VATICAN CITY — Despite persistent health concerns, Pope Francis appears on course to face two strenuous, long-haul apostolic journeys in July — first to Africa with visits to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan, and then a multi-stop tour of Canada.
The Holy Father is scheduled to travel more than 3,000 miles from Rome to Congo July 2-5, visiting the country’s capital Kinshasa, and then another 1,000 miles to Goma, capital of Congo’s eastern North Kivu region where the most intense fighting in the country’s 2008-2018 civil war took place.
His visit to Africa’s second largest country is expected to be one of peace and reconciliation after decades of political and social turmoil. The eastern part of the country is home to many armed groups that have seen seemingly endless bloodshed for almost 30 years, fueled by a complex web of ethnic disputes, political instability and the battle for Congo’s rich mineral resources.
Tens of thousands of Congolese have been displaced, making it one of the largest populations of refugees alongside Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Ukraine — a reality hardly mentioned in the world’s media.
The violence in eastern Congo led President Félix Tshisekedi to impose martial law a year ago in two eastern provinces including North Kivu. The restrictions, called an “état de siege,” have since been extended 22 times but the violence has continued to worsen.
In February 2021, Italy’s ambassador to the country and his bodyguard and driver were killed in an attack as they traveled in a World Food Program convoy through the region. The DRC is seen as home to the deadliest conflicts globally since World War II, and elections next year are expected to escalate the violence even further.
The country’s apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Ettore Balestrero, has said the Pope’s visit is meant to promote reconciliation for all.
“The Pope comes not only for Catholics. He comes for everyone. He wants to see everyone,” Archbishop Balestrero said at a meeting between the Congolese bishops’ conference and Congo’s government at the end of March. “This is why we are committed to preparing the event well. … The Pope comes to lead us to Jesus and to invite everyone to reconciliation.”
From Congo, the Pope will fly nearly 1,000 miles across Africa to South Sudan July 5-7 where he will visit the capital Juba. The trip comes after a brutal 2013-2018 post-independence civil war that cost 400,000 lives and hunger and deadly clashes continue in parts of the country.
After South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011, the new country’s President Salva Kiir accused then-Vice President Riek Machar of plotting to overthrow him, setting off an intense civil war that led to violent clashes between ethnic groups, political instability, countless human rights violations, famine and structural collapse.
The 2018 peace deal brought to an end the worst of the violence of the five-year civil war, but several issues continue to be unresolved, such as failed attempts to reunify the national army — an issue that analysts say could plunge the country back into widespread conflict.
The Pope has long advertised his wish to visit the country which is predominantly Christian. In a dramatic gesture in 2019, he knelt to kiss the feet of South Sudan’s previously warring leaders as he urged them not to return to civil war. But his hopes to visit had always been dashed, either because of internal instability or the COVID restrictions.
“Pope Francis is very serious about reconciliation for justice to prevail,” Archbishop Hubertus Matheus Maria van Megen, apostolic nuncio to South Sudan, told AMECEA online last month. “I think he intends to be that bridge between the opposing parties in South Sudan to bring people together.”
He will be traveling with the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, Jim Wallace, on a visit whose aim is to also promote peace and reconciliation. In a joint statement with Welby and Wallace, the Pope wrote that the visit would be a “pilgrimage of peace” and they urged the country’s leaders to follow the “way of forgiveness and freedom.”
Archbishop van Megen stressed that “South Sudan is not just for the Catholic Church but also a number of other churches who play an important role not only among the people but also at the level of government.” The nuncio added that the presence of Welby and Wallace together with the Pope will therefore be a “real example of ecumenism in the Church.”
After visiting South Sudan, Pope Francis will spend just over two weeks at the Vatican before leaving again, this time for a six-day visit to Canada. The apostolic journey will begin with a 5,000-mile flight to Edmonton in western Canada, then another 2,000 miles to Quebec City in the country’s east, and finally 1,000 miles north to Iqaluit, a town on Baffin Island just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
The Vatican has yet to announce details of the visit, but it comes after the Pope held several meetings at the Vatican in April with delegations of Canadian indigenous people. The meetings provided the Pope with the opportunity to listen to members of those communities following the discovery last year of unmarked graves at the site of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, with the bodies of hundreds of indigenous people.
The aim of the residential schools, run by Christian denominations and primarily the Catholic Church on behalf of the Canadian government between the 1880s and 1996, was to educate and assimilate indigenous children. According to Reuters, 150,000 children were sent to the schools, where they were deprived of their native language and culture. Many were subjected to physical, emotional and sexual abuse in what the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called “cultural genocide.”
The Pope joined Canada’s bishops in making an extensive apology to the indigenous people, speaking of his indignation and shame for the “deplorable conduct of members of the Catholic Church” in the schools. He also made it clear that he would like to meet the indigenous people again by visiting Canada.
Edmonton is home to the second-largest number of indigenous people living in Canadian cities, and the province of Alberta where Edmonton is located was home to the most residential schools in Canada — 25 in total. Iqaluit has the highest population of indigenous Inuit people of all Canadian cities, numbering 3,900 in total, while Quebec City is home to St. Anne-de-Beaupré, one of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites in North America. Many indigenous people and Catholics throughout Canada and across the world visit St. Anne-de-Beaupré’s shrine every year.
All three of these apostolic journeys are extensive, raising questions over whether the 85-year-old Pontiff, who is currently confined to a wheelchair due to what Vatican sources say is a “fractured knee,” will be in a fit enough state to take them. The Pope’s health has been in question since last July when he underwent a major operation to remove a large part of his colon. For a number of years, he has also suffered from sciatica.
“What’s really directing this [visit] is the Pope’s limited ability to get around,” Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton told reporters May 13. “So the Vatican is very clear: When he comes to a country, he can’t get around by helicopter, he can’t be in a car any more than an hour, he cannot be in a different place every night.”
Sources familiar with the situation told the Register last week that Francis will have to have surgery on his knee soon, as doctors say pain medication or “infiltrations,” a therapy that offers pain relief, will not be effective in the long run. But, sources say, Francis’ doctor is on standby, awaiting the Pope’s personal decision to undergo the surgery.
Vatican correspondent Franca Giansoldati, writing in Il Messaggero May 24, wrote that Francis is reluctant to undergo surgery, telling Italian bishops this week that the last time he went under the knife to resolve his colon problem last year, he had difficulties following the general anesthesia.
“He would, therefore, now like to avoid ending up in the operating room again,” Giansoldati wrote, adding that he hopes to do this through “massive infiltrations” and to “respect the advice of orthopedic surgeons by using a wheelchair for his daily life in Santa Marta.” He is also using a cane equipped with a tripod to make it as stable as possible, Giansoldati noted.
Some are playing down the Pope’s medical concerns: his longtime friend, Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernandez of La Plata, Argentina, said May 14 after seeing the Pope that Francis “has more than two hours of [daily] rehabilitation” for his knee “which is producing results” but that “for everything else, he’s better than ever.”
But multiple Vatican sources told the Register that the Pope made an unpublicized visit to the Gemelli hospital in Rome two weeks ago where he underwent an MRI scan that was then repeated at Villa Stuart, a private hospital in Rome specializing in orthopedic surgery.
The Register has asked the Holy See Press Office if the symptoms are a sign of something more serious, but it did not respond.
What is clear, however, is that the Pope’s health has deteriorated over the past two years — not surprisingly, given his advanced age. The Register has confirmed through multiple sources that he now travels with two Vatican nurses, Massiliano Strappetti and Andrea Rinaldi, whereas before he didn’t require this medical presence. Strappetti, whom the Pope last year credited for saving his life, now shares meals with him daily and has a room in the Pope’s Santa Marta residence, one Vatican source said.
The same source believes the ambitious July travel schedule is therefore in some doubt and that the Pope might be forced to cancel his trips, as he has already done with respect to his planned trip to Lebanon in June.
But speaking at the end of March, Archbishop van Megen believed the Pope was keen for the visits to take place as this may be his last chance. “He is able to travel now and, if he waits longer, he will not be able to do this kind of travel,” the nuncio said, adding that although his physical health is a “challenge,” the Pope is “ready to do it and he is ready to sacrifice his health for this travel.”