27 February 2017, The Tablet

Pope 'studying' historical joint visit to South Sudan with Archbishop of Canterbury

If the two leaders of the major faith groups could come and beg for peace - that would make a big impact on the country,' says South Sudan Archbishop

While making the first ever visit by a Pope to the Anglican church in Rome, Francis raised the prospect of making ecumenical history by making a joint visit to South Sudan with the Archbishop of Canterbury. 

The Pope said he was studying the possibility of a trip to raise the plight of people living in the war-torn and famine stricken country, where 100,000 face imminent starvation with families surviving on weeds and water lilies. 

"My aides and I are studying the possibility of a trip to South Sudan,” Francis said during a question and answer discussion during his visit to All Saints to mark the 200th anniversary of its opening. 

The Pope recalled last year’s visit by Church leaders from the country who urged him to make the visit along with Archbishop Justin Welby, who has shown a close interest in the plight of people in South Sudan. 

At the end of last week the country’s bishops and diocesan leaders said Francis hopes to visit later in the year, in order to draw the world’s attention to the country’s suffering.

"The situation is a bit ugly down there but we have to do it because the three of them [the local bishops from different churches] together want peace and they are working together for peace," Francis said.

He added that the trip would probably only last one day, likely to be the case due to security reasons.

South Sudan, which only became a state in 2011, has been riven with inter-ethnic fighting as government forces led by President Salva Kiir clashed with rebels loyal to Riek Machar, a man Kiir dismissed as his deputy in 2013. 

“A visit by the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury would mean unity”, Anglican Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul Yak, the Primate of the Episcopal Church in South Sudan, told The Tablet last year. “If the two leaders of the major faith groups could come and beg for peace - that would make a big impact on the country.”

Throughout his papacy Francis sought out ways for Christians to work together on issues such as the migrant crisis, human trafficking and climate change. He has also developed a close rapport with Archbishop Welby who both share a can-do approach on ecumenical matters. 

At All Saints, Francis was asked if he gave priority to collaborating on social action projects with other churches ahead of trying to resolve theological differences, which was the questioner pointed out was the priority of Benedict XVI. 

In reply, the Pope said he agreed with his predecessor on the need for theological dialogue given disagreements but that this could not be done “in a laboratory.”  Instead, Francis explained, dialogue must take place while “walking along the path” of ecumenism which includes working together on charitable initiatives, in war zones and helping the poor. 

He also suggested that Catholic and Anglican seminarians from Europe should be sent together to work on pastoral projects in churches in Africa and the global south, as a way of learning from younger, and more energised, Christian communities.  


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