In a video message sent by Pope Francis to the Central African Republic in the lead-up to his visit to the country, the Holy Father said his goal was to bring “the comfort of consolation and hope.”
Judging from the applause at certain moments during the Pope’s homily today at a Mass he celebrated in Bangui’s cathedral, the people of war-torn CAR are finding his visit a reason for hope — hope that, like the theme of the visit and the theme of the homily — there is the possibility to “go across to the other side” and leave violence behind.
This theme is from Christ’s invitation to the Apostles found in Luke’s Gospel to go with him to the other side of the lake. Once in the boat, Jesus falls asleep despite a violent storm that strikes them; the apostles wake him and he calms the storm.
This evening’s Mass in Bangui followed a simple and highly symbolic ceremony as the Pope opened the Holy Door of the cathedral, anticipating the beginning of the Jubilee Year of Mercy, which begins for the universal Church on Dec. 8.
“I have come to offer God’s strength and power; for these bring us healing, set us on our feet and enable us to embark on a new life, to ‘go across to the other side,’” the Pope said in the homily.
The congregation, made up of priests, religious, seminarians and youth of CAR, applauded the Holy Father’s assurance that — speaking in reference to the end times — “It is amid unprecedented devastation that Jesus wishes to show his great power, his incomparable glory and the power of that love which stops at nothing, even before the falling of the heavens, the conflagration of the world or the tumult of the seas.”
The homily, which the Pope gave in Italian, was simultaneously translated into Sangho. As the Pope continued, saying, “God is stronger than all else,” the faithful applauded again.
The Bishop of Rome exhorted the congregation to live up to the high calling of the Christian life, to be perfect as our Heavenly Father is perfect, even if “the distance between this demanding ideal and our Christian witness is at times great.“
“One of the essential characteristics of this vocation to perfection is the love of our enemies, which protects us from the temptation to seek revenge and from the spiral of endless retaliation,” the Pope said. “[…] Those who evangelize must therefore be first and foremost practitioners of forgiveness, specialists in reconciliation, experts in mercy. This is how we can help our brothers and sisters to ‘cross to the other side’ – by showing them the secret of our strength, our hope, and our joy, all of which have their source in God, for they are grounded in the certainty that he is in the boat with us.”
The Pope was speaking of the situation that has led to the current violence in CAR, which began in early 2013 when mainly Muslim Seleka rebels overtook Bangui and terrorized the majority Christian population. The violence brought the rise of the mostly Christian “anti-balaka” (anti-violence or anti-machete) militia, and the tit-for-tat killings that are continuing today, even as, in fact, the religious issue is secondary, and the violence is sustained by other complexities.
An interfaith alliance to advocate an end to the violence has been formed by Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, president of the Evangelical Alliance; Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, president of the Islamic Council; and Archbishop Diedonné Nzapalainga of Bangui, president of the Catholic bishops’ conference.
During the Mass, the Pope left the altar at the sign of peace to shake hands with the imam and the reverend. (The archbishop was concelebrating at the altar.)
The Pope emphasized that Christians had to be ready to respond to violence with love.
“Even when the powers of Hell are unleashed, Christians must rise to the summons, their heads held high, and be ready to brave blows in this battle over which God will have the last word. And that word will be love! And peace!,” he said, to more applause.
The Pope — who has described the conflicts across the globe as a World War III being fought piecemeal, and who said before opening the Holy Door that CAR represented all the countries enduring war — made a plea to “all those who make unjust use of the weapons of this world.”
“Lay down these instruments of death!,” he appealed. “Arm yourselves instead with righteousness, with love and mercy, the authentic guarantors of peace.”
“As followers of Christ, dear priests, religious and lay pastoral workers,” the Pope said, “here in this country, with its suggestive name, situated in the heart of Africa and called to discover the Lord as the true centre of all that is good, your vocation is to incarnate the very heart of God in the midst of your fellow citizens.”