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Pope Francis urged Congo’s people on Wednesday to forgive those who have harmed them as he presided over a Mass before an estimated 1 million people in a country wracked by decades of violence.
Many of the faithful spent the night at the capital’s vast Ndolo airport and spent the hours before Francis’ arrival singing, dancing and getting jazzed up for the pontiff’s first main event of his trip to Africa. His is the first papal visit to the country since St. John Paul II’s in 1985.
The crowd cheered wildly when Francis began a languid loop around the airfields in his open-sided popemobile, as some people ran alongside or waved flags. Many women wore dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric, featuring images of Francis or other religious symbols.
“Today I understand the enthusiasm of my grandmother when Pope John Paul II came,” said Julie Mbuyi, a 45-year-old mother of two who wore a Francis-themed outfit. “She was so excited to see him and the night before she couldn’t close her eyes!”
The crowd cheered again when the Argentine pope greeted them in Lingala, one of four national languages of Congo that is widely spoken in the capital, Kinshasa. And they listened attentively as he urged them in his homily to open their hearts to forgiveness, citing the example of Christ who forgave those who betrayed him.
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“He showed them his wounds because forgiveness is born from wounds,” Francis said. “It is born when our wounds do not leave scars of hatred, but become the means by which we make room for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity, and forgiveness becomes the path to peace.”
Referring to the decades of violence especially in Congo’s east that has forced millions to flee their homes, Francis stressed that forgiveness doesn’t mean pretending that nothing bad has happened. But he said it creates an “amnesty of the heart.”
“What great good it does us to cleanse our hearts of anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility!” he said.
In his opening speech to government officials after arriving Tuesday, Francis condemned the plundering of Africa’s mineral and natural wealth by foreign powers for centuries.
Later Wednesday, Francis was to meet with victims of the fighting in Congo’s east, where rebel groups have intensified attacks over the past year as they seek to expand their territory. At the meeting, people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities are expected to tell their stories.
Francis had originally planned to visit the eastern province of North Kivu but had to cancel the stop due to fighting that has forced about 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Congo, where over 26 million face hunger, according to the World Food Program.
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Pope Francis arrives at Ndolo airport to celebrate Holy Mass, in Kinshasa, Congo, on Feb. 1, 2023. Francis held a mass in Congo before an estimated 1 million people.
(AP Photo/Jerome Delay)
“When we heard that Pope Francis was no longer coming to our province of North Kivu, my husband and I decided to come all the way to Kinshasa to see and hear him,” said Jeanne Kahota as she waited for the Mass to begin. She said she was old enough to remember John Paul’s visit, but wasn’t able to follow it closely.
“That’s why we said to ourselves that this kind of appointment doesn’t happen every day, it’s exceptional and we didn’t want to miss it again.”
Roughly half of Congo’s 105 million people are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.
Fighting in eastern Congo, which has more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 group that had been largely dormant for nearly a decade. The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Francis on Tuesday condemned the fighting and planned to repeat his call for peace during his meeting with victims of the conflict. The victims were also expected to participate in a ceremony to forgive their assailants, according to Vatican organizers.
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The Vatican estimated that 1 million people were on hand for Francis’ Mass on Wednesday, citing local organizers. The airport’s fields have a capacity of 1.5 million people and were not full by the time the Mass began.
Among the faithful was Clément Konde, who traveled from Kisantu, a town in the province of Central Kongo, more than 150 kilometers (95 miles) from Kinshasa. He planned to participate in all of Francis’ events this week before the pontiff heads to South Sudan, the second leg of his African journey.
“To my children and to the children who stayed in my city, I will bring them the message of the Holy Father, the message of peace and reconciliation,” Konde said.