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Pope Francis stuns rival South Sudan leaders by kissing their feet in plea for peace

AFP Photo | Vatican Media
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The pope dropped to the feet of the president and new vice presidents at end of a spiritual retreat at the Vatican.

Pope Francis today stunned participants in a spiritual retreat held for civil and religious leaders from South Sudan, dropping to his knees to kiss the feet of government leaders who are working on a peace accord.

In off-the-cuff remarks after delivering a formal discourse at the end of the two-day retreat, the Pope implored members of the government to “remain in peace.”

Present at the Pope’s residence for the retreat were Salva Kiir Mayardit, President of the Republic, as well as five designated Vice Presidents, including Riek Machar Teny Dhurgon, who has been the main opposition leader. Under the “Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan,” those leaders will take office May 12, sharing power and ending the armed conflict between clans and among communities.

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, head of the worldwide Anglican Communion, joined Pope Francis in the retreat in the Domus Sanctae Marthae, April 10 and 11.

“I ask you as a brother,” Pope Francis said to the country’s leaders, as an assistant interpreted into English, “stay in peace. I’m asking you with my heart: let us go forward. … Go ahead, go forward, and resolve the problems. You have begun a process. May it end well. There will be struggles, disagreements, amongst you. But let this remain inside the office. But in front of the people, hold hands, united, so as simple citizens you will become fathers of the nation.”

At that point, apparently to everyone’s surprise, the Pontiff walked across the small sitting room to where the leaders were standing. Before each one, he knelt to kiss their feet, as if begging for peace.

Earlier, in his formal address, Pope Francis defined the purpose of the retreat as one of “standing together before God and discerning His will.” He reminded the civil and ecclesiastical authorities present of their “enormous shared responsibility for the present and future of the people of South Sudan,” and of how God will ask us “to render an account not only of our own lives, but the lives of others as well.”

Discussing the various “gazes” Jesus casts on his apostles at key points in their three years together, such as on Peter after he had denied the Lord three times, the pope commented, “Jesus’ gaze rests, here and now, on each of us. It is very important to meet this gaze” and to ask ourselves, “What is my mission and the task that God entrusts to me for the good of His people?”

Jesus has “put great trust in us by choosing us to be His co-workers in the creation of a more just world,” said the Pope. His gaze penetrates the depths of our hearts: “it loves, transforms, reconciles and unites us.”

Pope Francis then spoke of “another gaze,” that of the people, a gaze that “expresses their ardent desire for justice, reconciliation and peace.”

Francis congratulated the signatories of the peace agreement signed by the highest political representatives of South Sudan last September. They chose “the path of dialogue,” he said.

He also commended the “various ecumenical initiatives of the South Sudan Council of Churches on behalf of reconciliation and peace, and care for the poor and the marginalized.”

Church leaders from the country and region attending the retreat included eight members of the South Sudan Council of Churches; Archbishop John Baptist Odama of Gulu, Uganda, and Jesuit Father Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, President of the Conference of Major Superiors of Africa and Madagascar.

Cardinal Pietro Parolin, Vatican secretary of state, told ZENIT news agency that the Vatican has “cautious optimism” for a papal visit to South Sudan. It has been delayed by civil war.

South Sudan became independent from Sudan in 2011. Conflict erupted in in December 2013, following months of political discord, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. President Salva Kiir fired Vice President Riek Machar, who had criticized Kiir. They had policy differences over the distribution of oil revenues within the country. Kiir belongs to the Dinka tribe. Machar is a Nuer.

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