On Sunday Pope Francis offered his prayer and support for victims of a recent jump in violence in the Central African Republic, repeating his frequent call for the use of dialogue, rather than weapons, to solve conflicts.
“Painful news unfortunately comes from the Central African Republic, which I carry in my heart, especially after my visit in November 2015,” the Pope said May 21, noting that recent clashes “have caused numerous victims and displaced, and threaten the process of peace.”
He voiced his closeness to the people, the bishops, and to “all those who work for the good of the people and for peaceful coexistence” in the CAR.
Francis then prayed for the deceased and the wounded before renewing his appeal that “weapons be silenced and the good will of dialogue prevail in order to give peace and development to the country.”
The Pope’s words come after a spike in violent fighting this week between mainly Muslim fighters from the former Seleka rebel coalition that in 2013 overthrew former CAR president Francois Bozize, and anti-balaka militias, formed mainly of Christians.
At least 22 people, including 17 civilians, were killed during fighting between the two groups this week in the western town of Bria. Nearly 10,000 others were forced to flee to avoid further bloodshed.
Pope Francis visited the CAR from Nov. 29-30 at the end of his tri-nation tour to Africa, which also included stops in Kenya and Uganda. One of the highlights of his visit was his opening the Jubilee Holy Door in the capital city Bangui, ahead of the official Dec. 8 start of the Year of Mercy.
Francis’ trip to the CAR marked his first time as Pope in an active war zone. The country became embroiled in violence in December 2012 when several bands of mainly Muslim rebel groups formed an alliance, taking the name Seleka. They left their strongholds in the north of the country and made their way south, seizing power from then-president Francois Bozize.
In reaction, some Central Africans formed self-defense groups called the anti-balaka. Some of these groups, mainly composed of Christians, began attacking Muslims out of revenge, and the conflict took on a sectarian character. Thousands of people have been killed in the fighting, with many more displaced.
In his brief speech before praying the Regina Coeli, the Pope focused love of God and neighbor as “the greatest commandment” in the Gospel.
He turned to the days’ Gospel reading from John, in which the Evangelist recounts Jesus’ promise to send another “paraclete,” or “advocate,” in reference to the Holy Spirit.
Jesus’ assurance to his disciples that “I will never leave you orphans” transmits “the joy of a new coming of Christ: he, risen and glorified, dwells in the Father and, at the same time, comes to us in the Holy Spirit,” Francis said.
By reflecting on these words, we understand that we are part of the People of God in communion with Jesus through the Holy Spirit, he said, adding that it is precisely in this union that the Church discovers the “inexhaustible source of her own mission, which is realized through love.”
Pope Francis then pointed to Jesus’ words that “whoever loves me keeps my commandments,” saying it’s love that brings us to knowledge of Jesus thanks to the action of the Holy Spirit.
“Love of God and neighbor is the greatest commandment of the Gospel,” he said, adding that today the Lord asks us to respond to the call to love by “putting God at the center of our lives and dedicating ourselves to the service of our brothers, especially those most in need of support and consolation.”
Noting how difficult it can be to love at times, the Pope said that “if there is an attitude that is never easy, is never a given even for the Christian community, it’s knowing how to love, to love one another well based on the example of the Lord and with his grace.”
“At times conflict, pride, envy and division leave their mark even on the beautiful face of the Church,” he said, explaining that a Christian community must live in the charity of Christ.
However, it is exactly there where the devil comes and tries to fool us, Francis said, adding that those who allow themselves to fall for his delusions are “the most spiritually weak people.”
Even for Christians, knowing how to love is never a given “once and for all,” he said. Rather, we must begin again each day and put in the effort so that the love we have for the brothers and sisters we meet “becomes mature and purified by those limits or sins that leave it partial, selfish, sterile and unfaithful.”
“Every day we must learn the art of loving, every day we must follow with patience the school of Christ, with the help of his Spirit,” he said, and led pilgrims in praying the traditional Regina Coeli prayer, recited during Easter instead of the Angelus.
After, Francis noted that on May 24, the same day as his meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, Catholics in China will celebrate the feast of Mary, Help of Christians, who is venerated in the shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.
“To the Chinese Catholics I say: let us raise our gaze to Mary our Mother, so that she help us to discern the will of God regarding the Church’s concrete path in China and sustain us in welcoming with generosity her project of love.”
“May Mary encourage us to offer our personal contribution for communion among believers and for the harmony of society as a whole,” he said, urging Chinese Catholics not to forget to “bear witness to the faith with prayer and with love, always remaining open to encounter and dialogue.”