“The whole world is at war and self-destruction, we must stop in time!”
Pope Francis made the remark in his press conference aboard the papal plane on the return flight to Rome from South Sudan. He spoke to reporters alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the Right Reverend Iain Greenshields, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
The three jointly answered questions put to them by journalists covering the Apostolic Journey to DR Congo and South Sudan.
Pope Francis reiterated the “injustice” of the criminalisation of homosexual people, and addressed polemics surrounding the death of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who died on 31 January 2022. The Pope said his death was “instrumentalised” by people “who took political sides rather than that of the Church.”
He also explained that his predecessor, whom he consulted several times in recent years, “was not bitter about my actions.”
At the outset of the press conference, Pope Francis reiterated the ecumenical nature of the visit to South Sudan. “I wanted the two of them to be in the press conference,” he said, “especially the Archbishop of Canterbury, who has a years-long history along the path toward reconciliation” in South Sudan.
Here follows a working English transcription and translation of the press conference (Archbishop Welby and Rt. Rev. Greenshields spoke in English, while Pope Francis spoke in Italian):
Good afternoon and thank you very much. And, Your Holiness, thank you. In 2014, in January, my wife and I visited South Sudan as part of a series of trips around the Anglican Communion. And on arriving, we were asked by the Archbishop, the Anglican Archbishop, to go up to a town called Bor. The civil war had been raging for about five weeks at the time and was very fierce. When we got up to Bor, we went up in a single-engine aircraft and landed on a deserted airfield and with the first bodies at the gate of the airfield. There were 3000 unburied bodies in Bor at the time and there had been 5000. There were a few UN and a lot of troops around. We went to the cathedral where all the clergy had been murdered, the Anglican clergy, their wives had been raped and then murdered. It was a terrible situation.
On the way back, both my wife and I felt a deep call to see what we could do to support the people of South Sudan. And from there, in one of the regular meetings that I have the privilege of having with Pope Francis, we spoke a lot about South Sudan and developed the idea of a retreat at the Vatican. My team at Lambeth, together with the Vatican, went, from about 2016, visited South Sudan most months and spent time working out in the field and working with leaders to try and set up this visit. My wife went and worked with bishops’ wives and women leaders again, who themselves were under enormous pressure, and we visited leaders who were in exile in Uganda.
In 2018, it became clear that there was going to be a possibility of a visit in early 2019, and we managed it. It was a miracle that it happened. One of the vice presidents was in house arrest in Khartoum. And I remember the day before the visit – I was flying to Rome very early the next morning for the visit. It was 36 hours the day before – I stood in a school car park in Nottingham in England, ringing the UN secretary-general in order to get him to clear the way, which he did very brilliantly, and give a visa to the vice president who got the last flight out of Khartoum just before the airspace closed because of the coup d’etat.
The high point of the 2019 conference was obviously the unforgettable sight of the Pope kneeling to kiss the feet of the leaders and saying, ‘I beg you to make peace’ while they tried to stop him. It took your mind straight away to the 13th chapter of John’s Gospel. It was a most remarkable moment.
We had some very tough conversations, and at one point the vice presidents went separately to a meeting, which was pretty intense, but they ended up committing to renew the peace agreement. And I think that moment of the Pope’s was the key moment, was the turning point.
But as a former football manager in England said, you’re only as good as your next match. And COVID delayed the next match very seriously. I think the result of that was a loss of momentum in the peace process. And as we came to this visit, the teams continued to go, but they were less confident than in 2019.
So I’ve ended this visit with a deep sense of encouragement, not so much that there was a breakthrough, but there was a sense, to use a past phrase from the Pope, of heart speaking to heart. It was not at the intellectual level that there was contact, as you may have noticed at the various gatherings where there were speeches. The heart spoke to the heart. And we… There is a momentum at middle level and at the grassroots. And what we now need is a serious change of heart from the leadership. They have to agree to a process that will lead to a peaceful transition of power. They’ve been told this publicly. We’ve said it to them. There has to be an end to corruption and gun smuggling and the amassing of huge quantities of weapons. That will require further work together with the Vatican and Lambeth, but most of all with governments, the troika, to turn this open door, which is not open as wide as I would like, which is open, to crash, open the door and actually make progress. There’s basically a bit under two years till the elections, the end of ’24. We need serious progress by the end of ’23. I’ll hand over to the Moderator to say a word.
Right Reverend Greenshields
Thank you, Archbishop. My experience is obviously very different from the Pope and the Archbishop, in that this is my first time in South Sudan. However, it’s not my church’s first time in South Sudan because a previous Moderator had travelled into what was, in his estimation, an extremely vulnerable situation. Reconciliation, forgiveness, were at the very heart of the conversation and dialogue that took place then in 2015. People were invited to come to Scotland to reflect and to train and to go back to South Sudan. Now that’s within the Presbyterian constituency of South Sudan.
I would echo what my friend said there, that strong words have been spoken. The truth has been spoken. To the heart as well as to the mind. I think the situation now clearly is this: that actions speak louder than words. We were invited by the government and the churches to go there as a friend would invite you to come into their room, into their house. And that invitation was one where we were asked to help in whatever way we could to make a difference in that situation, to meet with our partners, to try in whatever way we could to speak to those in power. That’s been done. Now it’s up to those who can make a difference to start the process urgently. And that’s what is asked for by us in this visit.
Q: Jean-Baptiste Malenge (RTCE-Radio Catolique Elikya ASBL)
Holy Father, you have longed to visit the DRC… you have seen the joy… What importance would you assign the agreement signed in 2016 between the Holy See and the DRC on education and health?
I am not familiar with that agreement; however, the Secretariat of State can offer an opinion. I know there has recently been an agreement in the pipeline, but I am unable to answer that. I don’t even know the difference between the new one that is on the way. These matters are handled by the Secretary of State, by Gallagher, and they are good at making agreements that benefit everyone. I saw there in DR Congo a great desire to move forward, and so much culture. Before coming here, I had a Zoom meeting a few months ago with a group of very intelligent African university students. You have people of superior intelligence – this is one of your riches: intelligent young people and space must be made for them, rather than shutting doors. Having so many natural riches that attract people to come and exploit Congo – pardon the word – this idea is present: ‘Africa has to be exploited.’ Some say – I don’t know if it is true – that former colonial empires granted independence from the ground up, but not underground, so they come for minerals. But we have to rid ourselves of the idea that Africa is there to be exploited. And talking about exploitation strikes me; the problems in the east cause me pain. I was able to meet with victims of that war, who were wounded, even amputees. There was great pain, and all to strip away riches. This is no good. No good. Congo has so many possibilities.
I don’t know the west of Congo so well. My wife has been there again, working with women in conflict. But I was… I’ve done a lot of traveling in the East the last time in 2018, just before COVID. And I want to agree wholeheartedly with what His Holiness has said. We need to be clear. Congo is not the playground of the great powers or for the piracy of the small mining companies. The companies there act irresponsibly with artisanal mining, kidnap – the use of child soldiers, rape on a huge scale and they simply pillage the country. That country should be one of the richest on the face of the planet. One of the biggest grantors of aid to the rest of Africa. It has been tortured. It was given political independence technically, but no economic independence.
And all the experience of the East – I was last there during Ebola, right in the middle of the militia area, and we were training pastors in how to work with Ebola of all kinds… The churches are doing extraordinary work there. The only functional group, particularly, Father, the Roman Catholic Church, does wonderful work. The Great Lakes Peace Project, led by the Roman Catholic Church, is wonderful, but the great powers have to say: ‘Africa and Congo in particular hold so much in the way of the ore and the metals and the minerals and the resources that we will need round the world, if the world economy is to go green and save the planet from climate change.’ And the only way that that can be done in a way that does not cover our hands with blood is if the great powers seek the peace of the Congo and not merely their prosperity.
Rt. Rev. Greenshields
I don’t want to add too much because I think that was a very eminent answer to it. But it’s a warning, isn’t it, to those of us who have. But I think that it was something that the Pope mentioned here about young people. Bright, good young minds deserve the opportunity to develop. Now, from my own experience in other parts of the world, bright young female minds deserve the right to the same opportunities exactly as any others in whatever country, but especially in the developing countries. And that would be my plea. The rights of women and young women in particular have to be recognised as paramount.
Q: Jean-Luc Mootosamy (CAPAV)
From Mauritius and covering also for South Sudanese Radio, which is exiled in Nairobi. In both DRC and South Sudan, violence spreads despite the presence of, decades of presence of two United Nations missions. How can you, as one, help in recommending a new model of intervention, given the growing temptation of many disappointed African nations to choose other partners for their security partners who may not respect international law? Like Russian private companies, organisations in the Sahel region, for example. Thank you.
Violence is an everyday theme. We have just seen it in South Sudan. It is painful to see how violence is provoked. One of the issues is the sale of weapons. Archbishop Welby also said something about this. The sale of arms: I think this is the biggest plague in the world. The business… the sale of arms. Someone who understands these matters told me that without selling arms for a year there would be an end to world hunger. I don’t know if that’s true. But at the top today is the selling of arms. And not only among the great powers. Even to these poor people… they sow war with them. It’s cruel. They tell them, ‘Go to war!’ and they give them weapons. Because behind it there are economic interests to exploit the land, the minerals, the wealth. It is true that tribalism in Africa does not help. Now I don’t really know how it is in South Sudan. I think it is there too. But there needs to be dialogue between the different tribes. I remember when I was in Kenya in the full stadium. Everyone stood up and said no to tribalism, no to tribalism. Everyone has their own history, there are old enmities, different cultures. But it is also true that you provoke the fight between tribes by selling arms and then you exploit the war of both tribes. This is diabolical. I cannot think of another word. This is to destroy: destroying creation, destroying the person, destroying society. I don’t know if it also happens in South Sudan but it does happen in some countries: young boys are recruited to be part of the militia and fight with other young boys. To sum up, I think the biggest problem is the eagerness to take that country’s wealth – coltan, lithium, these sorts of things – and through war, for which they sell weapons, they also exploit children.
Rt. Rev. Greenshields
I think one of the issues that comes to mind with respect to this, is the high degree of illiteracy that exists within countries, in which case people don’t have a clear understanding of who they are and where they are and making educated choices. That’s one thing. We certainly have to challenge the arms race, where people make more money through that than the world and probably anything else. How we do that is through persuasion and how we overcome division is through dialogue.
I want to just give you one small story about Scotland, the country that I come from, which was religiously a deeply divided country where we had terrible things happening, terrible violence, terrible division within our nation. There then began a process of dialogue between ourselves, the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church in Scotland that arrived at the point last year where we signed a declaration of friendship, where we would walk together in our differences, but also in agreement with the things that we agree with. And it’s only when you can get to that stage of dialogue and encounter with the other person that you start to bring down those walls. And that’s what we’ve noticed in Scotland. And what when I was young, was a deeply divided country and is changing. And education, too, helps to do that.
I want to take a different tack because it was a very good, very helpful question. It’s not the it’s not the UN or other things. It is ‘and.’ It’s always ‘and’ rather than ‘or.’
What the churches bring is not only functional networks where they’re almost uncorrupt. And so when you put aid in, it gets to the people on the ground; and their networks that cross the fighting lines, and all the rest of it. On Saturday, our archbishop in Kajo Keji buried twenty people. He went straight down there. He was back Saturday evening. He had made a big difference. It’s the change of heart. And that’s the point of this visit.
A hundred and thirty years ago, hundred years ago, the Nuer and the Dinka were constantly at war. It was a vendetta culture. The Nuer, in particular, were at war with clans among themselves, as well. Cattle raiding. The difference was not made by the colonial government. It was made by the churches and the change of heart, as people received faith in Christ and realised there was a new way to live.
So my prayer at the end of this visit is not just lots of activism, but also that the Holy Spirit of God brings a new spirit of reconciliation and healing to the people of South Sudan.
Q: Claudio Lavanga (NBC NEWS)
Holy Father I wanted to ask you, since Archbishop Welby recalled that incredible moment in 2019 when you knelt before the leaders of South Sudan to ask for peace. Unfortunately, in two weeks’ time, it will be the first anniversary of another terrible conflict, the one in Ukraine, and my question is: Would you be prepared to make the same gesture towards Vladimir Putin if you had the chance to meet him, since your appeals for peace so far have fallen on deaf ears? And I wanted to ask all three of you if you would like to make a joint appeal for peace in Ukraine, as this is a rare moment when you are all three [together]?
I am open to meeting both presidents: the President of Ukraine and the President of Russia – I am open to a meeting. If I have not gone to Kyiv, it was because it was not possible at the time to go to Moscow; but I was in dialogue. In fact, on the second day of the war, I went to the Russian Embassy to say that I wanted to go to Moscow to talk to Putin, provided there was a small window to negotiate. Then Minister Lavrov replied that he was considering this but [said], ‘Let’s see later.’ That gesture was something I thought, ‘I am doing it for him’ [for Putin, ed.]. But the gesture of the 2019 meeting, I don’t know how it happened; it wasn’t thought out, and you can’t repeat things that weren’t thought out – it’s the Spirit that takes you there. It is impossible to explain, full stop. And I have also forgotten it. It was a service, I was an instrument of some inner impulse, not a planned thing.
Today we are at this point, but it is not the only war. I would like to do justice [to what’s happening around the world]: For twelve to thirteen years Syria has been at war, for more than ten years Yemen has been at war; think of Myanmar, of the poor Rohingya people who travel around the world because they have been driven out of their homeland. Everywhere, in Latin America… how many hotbeds of war there are! Yes, there are more important wars because of the noise they make, but, I don’t know, the whole world is at war, and in self-destruction. We have to think seriously: it is in self-destruction. We must stop in time, because one bomb calls back on you a bigger one, and [then]a bigger one, and in the escalation, you don’t know where you will end up. We need to have a cool head.
Then both His Grace and the Right Reverend Greenshields spoke of women. I have seen women in South Sudan: they bear children, sometimes they are alone, but they have the strength to create a country; women are great. Men go to fight, they go to war, and these ladies with two, three, four, five children forge on ahead. I have seen them in South Sudan. And speaking of women, I’d like to say a word to the nuns, the nuns who throw themselves into what is happening – I’ve seen some of them here in South Sudan, and then at today’s Mass you heard the name of so many nuns who have been killed… Let us go back to the strength of ‘woman.’ We must take them seriously and not use them as a cosmetics ad: please, this is an insult to women; women are meant for greater things! For the other point, I already told you, let’s look at the wars that are in the world.
I talked about Russia and President Putin and Ukraine when I was there at the end of November, early December. I’ve really nothing to add, except to say that an end to this war is within the hands of President Putin. He could end it with withdrawal and ceasefire and then negotiations about long-term settlement. But it can’t… It is a terrifying and a terrible war.
But I want to agree with Pope Francis. There are many other wars. I talk every few weeks to the head of our church in Myanmar. I talk to church leaders in Nigeria – 40 people killed in fighting in Katsina yesterday. I talk to many around the world. I entirely agree with the Holy Father. And no war ends without the involvement of women and of young people for exactly the reasons he said.
Q: Bruce De Galzain (Radio France)
Holy Father, before departing on your Apostolic Journey you denounced the criminalisation of homosexuality, which is not accepted by families either in South Sudan or in Congo. This week in Kinshasa I met five homosexuals, each of whom had been rejected and even expelled from their families. They explained to me that their rejection comes from their parents’ religious upbringing – some of them are taken to exorcist priests because their families believe they are possessed by unclean spirits. My question, Holy Father, is: what do you say to the families in Congo and South Sudan who still reject their children, and what do you say to the priests, to the bishops?
I have spoken on this issue on two Journeys; the first time [upon my return] from Brazil: ‘If a person with homosexual tendencies is a believer and seeks God, who am I to judge him?’ I said this on that trip. Secondly, coming back from Ireland, it was a bit of a problematic trip because that day a letter had just been published from that young man… in that case I said clearly to parents: ‘Children with this orientation have a right to stay at home; you cannot kick them out of the house.’ And then recently I said something, I don’t really remember my exact words, in the interview with the Associated Press. The criminalisation of homosexuality is an issue that must not be allowed to pass by. It is estimated that, more or less, fifty countries, in one way or another, promote this kind of criminalisation – they tell me more, but let’s say at least fifty – and some of these – I think it’s ten, even foresee the death penalty [for homosexual persons]. This is not right, people with homosexual tendencies are children of God, God loves them, God accompanies them. It is true that some are in this state because of various unwanted situations, but to condemn such people is a sin; to criminalise people with homosexual tendencies is an injustice. I am not talking about groups, but about people. Some say: they join in groups that generate noise. I am talking about people; lobbies are something different. I am talking about people. And I believe the Catechism of the Catholic Church says they should not be marginalised. This point, I believe, is clear.
It may not have entirely escaped your notice that, in the Church of England, we’ve been talking about this “just a little” recently, including a good deal of debate in Parliament and all kinds of things. I want to say I wish I had spoken as eloquently and clearly as the Pope. I entirely agree with every word he said there. The criminalisation – the Church of England, the Anglican Communion – has passed resolutions at two Lambeth conferences against criminalisation, but it has not really changed many people’s mind.
Over the next four days in the General Synod of the Church of England, this is our main topic of discussion, and I shall certainly quote the Holy Father. He said it beautifully and accurately.
Rt. Rev. Greenshields
Just a very short observation: There is nowhere in my reading of the four Gospels where I see Jesus turning anyone away. There is nowhere in the four Gospels where I see anything other than Jesus expressing love to whoever he meets. And as Christians, that’s the only expression that we can possibly give to any human being in any circumstances.
Alexander Hecht (ORF TV)
A question to the Pope: there has been much talk in recent days about unity. There has also been a demonstration of Christian unity in South Sudan, and also of unity within the Catholic Church itself. I would like to ask you if you feel this after the death of Benedict XVI: have your job and your mission been more difficult for you, because of tensions between the different wings of the Catholic Church have become stronger?
On this point, I would like to say that I was able to talk about everything with Pope Benedict. [Also] to change opinion. He was always by my side, supporting me, and if he had any issue, he would tell me and we would talk. There were no problems. Once I spoke with him about the marriage of homosexual people, about the fact that marriage is a sacrament and that we cannot make a sacrament, but that there is a possibility of ensuring legal protection of property rights, which began in France, [where] any person can form a civil union, not necessarily as a couple. For example, old ladies who are retired… because you can earn a lot.
A person who considered himself to be a great theologian, went to Pope Benedict, through a friend of his, and made a complaint against me. Benedict was not concerned. He called four top-level cardinal theologians and said: ”Explain this to me”, and they explained it. And so, the story ended.
It is an anecdote that shows how Benedict acted when there was a complaint. Some stories going around, that Benedict was embittered by what the new Pope did, are “a game of telephone.” In fact, I consulted Benedict for some decisions to be taken. And he agreed. He agreed.
I believe that Benedict’s death has been exploited by people who want to add grist to their mill. And those who exploit such a good person, such a man of God, I would say a holy father of the Church, well I would say they are unethical people, they are people belonging to a party, not to the Church… You can see everywhere the tendency to make theological views parties.
These things will fall on their own, or if they don’t they will go on as has happened many times in the history of the Church. I wanted to say clearly who Pope Benedict was: he was not embittered.
Jorge Barcia Antelo (RNE)
Good morning, Your Holiness. We return today from two countries that are victims of what you have called the globalisation of indifference. You have been talking about this since the beginning of your pontificate and since your trip to Lampedusa. In a way, a circle has been closed this week. Are you still thinking of extending the radius of this circle, of going elsewhere, of visiting other forgotten countries? What places are you thinking of going to? And after this journey that has been so long and demanding, how are you? Are you still feeling strong? Do you feel your health is good enough to go to all these places?
There is globalisation of indifference everywhere. Within a country, many people have forgotten to look at their compatriots, their fellow citizens, have put them aside so as not to think about them. To think that the greatest fortunes in the world are in the hands of a minority. And these people don’t look at the misery, their hearts don’t open themselves to help.
Regarding journeys: I think India will be next, next year. On 29 September I will go to Marseilles, and there is the possibility that from Marseilles I will fly to Mongolia, but it has not yet been decided. It’s possible. I don’t recall another one this year. Lisbon.
The criterion is: I chose to visit the smallest countries in Europe. People will say: “But he went to France,” no, I went to Strasbourg; I will go to Marseilles, not to France. The little ones, the little ones. [The criterion is] to get to know a little about the hidden Europe, that part of Europe that has so much culture but is not known. To accompany countries, for example, Albania, which was the first one, and is the country that suffered the cruelest, the cruelest dictatorship in history. Then, my choice is this: try not to fall into the globalisation of indifference.
[Concerning his health:] You know that the bad weed never dies. Not like at the beginning of the pontificate, this knee is annoying, but it goes on slowly, so let’s see. Thank you.
For the other two: Would you join together for another trip with the Pope?
Yes, if the holy Father felt that I added any value, or the Archbishop in the future added any value, it is always a huge privilege. It depends where it is and whether we would be a hindrance or a help.
Rt. Rev. Greenshields
We would certainly be delighted to do something like this again.
The only caveat I would add to that is that I finish my role on the 20th of May, and a very capable woman will be taking over as the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, but she will be delighted to do the same thing!
This is a working translation and transcription. Words and expressions in square brackets are provided for clarity.