This Friday, February 23, 2018, Pope Francis has asked us to pray and fast for peace in the world, and in particular, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan. We have good reason to do so.
The situations in the DRC and South Sudan are two of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. In the DRC, 4.5 million Congolese have fled their homes to escape violence; 10.5 million people are threatened by this violence; 13.5 million people need urgent help; and 2 million children suffer from acute malnutrition. In South Sudan, 1.9 million people have fled their homes while another 2.4 million took refuge in neighboring countries. There are 5.1 million people in need of food assistance.
In this time of Lent, the Holy Father asks us to show compassion, and to support our brothers and sisters in these conflict-ridden countries through prayer, fasting and almsgiving.
In the midst of these crises, the Catholic Church is a bright source of light and hope in both nations. The Congolese Church provides emergency assistance, health care, and education to hundreds of thousands. Since 2014, Congolese Church leaders have intervened in the political sphere to protect democracy and the common good, and to ensure that the government, which has been prone to corruption and negligence, respects the constitution and holds free and fair elections.
Church leaders have issued strong statements to condemn violations of human rights. They have organized marches for peace and to urge the government to respect the political agreement that the Church brokered between the government and opposition political parties to end the crisis. The Church is also implementing a nationwide elections education program to help ensure that elections serve the needs of the people and not only those seeking power. The Church is planning another march from the churches in Kinshasa, the capital, this Sunday, February 25, 2018.
In South Sudan, the Catholic Church works with other Christian denominations through the South Sudan Council of Churches. Together they are engaging their government and the opposition leaders, who are behind much of the violence, to convince them to halt the fighting and restart negotiations to end the crisis. Church leaders are also promoting meetings of local leaders to resolve local disputes before they become embroiled in the broader violent conflict. Finally, the churches draw from Scripture to guide efforts to reconcile people who have suffered from past violent conflicts. The churches hope to rebuild the social fabric of relationships as a long-term way to end violence.
In his message that announced the Day of Prayer and Fasting on Feb. 23, Pope Francis said, "Our heavenly Father always listens to his children who cry out to him in pain and anguish; 'he heals the brokenhearted, and binds up their wounds' (Ps 147:3). I launch a heartfelt appeal that we too may listen to this cry and each, according to his or her own conscience before God, can ask: 'What can I do for peace?'" Here are some ideas for how you can respond to this challenge:
Pope Francis asks us to lift up the courage of the Church and to nourish the hope that she brings to the Congolese and South Sudanese people who seek human dignity in peace and prosperity. What a great way to enrich and fulfill your Lenten celebration!
Steve Hilbert is a policy advisor on Africa for the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.