Pope Francis visiting a refugee camp in Bangui. Traces

At the Heart of Africa

“Africa is a martyr. That is why I love it.” The Pope wanted at all costs to open the Holy Year in the Central African Republic. From there, he asked everyone to pass over to “the other shore.”
Alessandra Stoppa

“Even if the whole world has forgotten us, the Pope has not. He has not forgotten.” Today this is the experience of the Central African people, as recounted by Fr. Federico Trinchero, a Discalced Carmelite, shortly after Pope Francis left Central Africa. Against all expectations, the Pope had insisted on opening the Holy Year in Bangui, making it the “spiritual capital of the world.” With a gesture he overturned all rankings and indices, where the Central African Republic is always at the bottom of the list. It is the third poorest country in the world. “The biggest and the most torn to pieces of the three countries visited by the Holy Father,” continued Trinchero. “Most people don’t know it is a country.They think it is a geographic indication, the central part of Africa. Instead, the Pope put us at the top of the rankings!” On his return flight, the Pope explained it this way: “Africa is a martyr. Historically it has been a martyr to exploitation... That is why I love Africa, because Africa has been a victim of other powers.” Asked what most struck him, he said, “I think of all those people, the joy, the ability to celebrate, even on an empty stomach. For me Africa was a surprise. I thought, God surprises us; but Africa surprises us too! They felt they had a visitor.” “He wanted to come at all costs,” continued Fr. Trinchero. “I have to admit that I was among the pessimists. I really didn’t think he would succeed. Up until Saturday–now I can say it–there were still shootings here.” He was speaking about the “red zone,” a Muslim enclave, precisely where Bergoglio wanted to arrive, in a modified Toyota without bulletproof windows. This is not the only reason they were preferred. They were also preferred in the message the Pope wanted to bring: a continually high call, demanding, free of pietism, and full of predilection. He asked these sons and daughters to pass to the other shore and to be perfect. “Jesus does not make us cross to the other side alone; instead, He asks us to make the crossing with Him... This is our fundamental vocation: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Through our own lives we reveal to others “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.” He added, “I realize the distance between this demanding ideal and our Christian witness is at times great.” But at that point he reminded his listeners of only one thing, Tertullian’s note of what the pagans said about the early Christians: ‘See how they love one another, how they truly love one another.’” Watching the Pope open the first Holy Door of the Jubilee of Mercy, Fr. Federico no longer saw “the two heavy and solemn doors of an ancient Cathedral, but the bars of a prison, the prison of violence, revenge, and fear that entrap the nation. Before opening the doors, Francis said in the local language, sango, two words that he then repeated, shouting: Ndoyé siriri! Love and peace! As if they were two keys for opening that door and leaving. And the door opened.” According to Fr. Trinchero, what happened was “an historical fact. For once, this can be written without exaggeration.” His convent in December 2013 became a refugee camp. Since then he and his fellow Carmelites have been serving thousands of refugees. Still today, on the land around the monastery, they host five thousand. “The first miracle of this journey,” he said, “is that everything went well. Truly, here, it was anything but taken for granted.” The Central African Republic is experiencing the most dramatic moment of its history, made up of coups, civil war, international military missions, and hundreds of thousands of refugees. In 2012, the Séléka, a Muslim majority coalition of local rebels and mercenaries from Sudan and Chad, sought to seize power, led by Michel Djotodia.

A Chronic Wound
A year later they ousted President François Bozize. “Since then, the country has not recovered,” recounted Tinchero. “In fact, the Christian part, or better, the non-Muslim part, reacted out of exasperation.”The so-called anti-balaka were as violent as the Séléka. “Our bishops have always distanced themselves and forcefully condemned the actions of these militias, incorrectly defined as Christian because they are in total contradiction to the Gospel.” Notwithstanding, the arrival of the new transition President, Catherine Samba Panza, of the French army (operation Sangaris) and of the UN mission (Minusca),in recent months, after an apparent hiatus, the clashes resumed. There have been dead and wounded on both sides, homes and churches burned, streets barricaded, many people fleeing who have found refuge in the parishes. “The situation has become chronic.” It is not always war, but it is never peace. “It is not a religious conflict,” Trinchero explained, “but, as in the Holy Land, enclaves and deep divisions are being formed.”

The words of the Pope, in his various talks, were a very strong appeal to set aside weapons and interests, to abandon every violent reaction, first of all by Christians, here where “up until four years ago, Catholics, Protestants and Muslims lived assisters and brothers.” In his last homily there, at the Mass in the stadium with 25,000 people, the Pope asked all of the baptized to “break with the remnants of the old Adam,” and to ask forgiveness for “our all to frequent reluctance and hesitation in bearing witness to the Gospel.”

To young people gathered in the Cathedral Square for the Vigil he asked them to be “resilient” like the banana tree, the tropical tree that “keeps growing, spreads, bears fruit which always gives nourishment and strength.” Knowing that many want to leave the country, he said, “Fleeing from life’s challenges is never a solution!”He anticipated everyone’s question (“How is this possible?”) with specific directions: 1) prayer, because “Prayer is powerful! Prayer conquers evil! Prayer makes you draw near to God who is all-powerful. Do you pray? Don’t forget this!” 2) “Never hate anyone.” And, work for peace. “Peace is built day by day. Peace is crafted; it is the work of our hands; it is built up by the way we live our lives. No hatred! Much forgiveness!”3) “If you want to be winners, we only win if we take the road of love. Can we love our enemies? Yes! Can we forgive those who do us wrong? Yes!” 4) “Trust in God! Because He is merciful; He is love; He is capable of giving you peace.”

For the First Time
He came to probe our hearts in this way. For two days, risking, knowing of the danger, “the people of the country filled the streets of the capital, singing and dancing, yelling with joy. It had not happened for years,” recounted Fr. Federico. “It was all simple and very touching. For a great many, even among the consecrated, it was the first time in their lives they had seen a Pope.”Delegations came to Bangui from all nine dioceses of this young Church, born a little over a century ago, in 1984, when a group of young French missionaries reached this land by travelling upstream on the Oubangui River. Everyone came to see him and hear him speak, to hear from his mouth that this is “the heart of Africa,” which can give “a stimulus to the entire continent.”

This journey was “an initiative of great meaning and very courageous.” The Pope also went to the Koudoukou mosque, which for months no one has dared to pass in front of because it was too dangerous. He greeted the Muslim community saying, “My Pastoral Visit to the Central African Republic would not be complete if it did not include this encounter with the Muslim community.” He spoke of the Christian and Muslim religious leaders who “have sought to rise to the challenges of the moment.” There are Imam Oumar Kobine Layama, Archbishop of Bangui, Dieudonné Nzapalainga, and Reverend Nicolas Guerekoyame-Gbangou, President of the Evangelical Alliance, all who are engaged in an untiring work of reconciliation. “We can also call to mind the many acts of solidarity which Christians and Muslims have shown with regard to their fellow citizens of other religious confessions, by welcoming them and defending them,” added the Pope, who was escorted by young Muslims all the way to the exit of the neighbourhood: “Zo kwe zo” he said in sango, the motto of the nation, “Every man is man.” The sango expression for the Central African Republic is Be-Afrika, which means “heart of Africa.” The Pope said: “This country, with its suggestive name... called to discover the Lord as the true center of all that is good, your vocation is to incarnate the very heart of God in the midst of your fellow citizens.” Becoming the heart of God for the world. Who would say this of one of the most ignored places on the planet? Instead, there is a man who said it, “Eternal life, heaven that awaits us,” the Pope reminded us, “is not an illusion, a flight from words. It is a powerful reality that calls us and engages us. It transforms our life, already in the present. We are in the midst of a river, but the other shore is within our reach. And Jesus crosses it with us.”