Pope Francis has Thursday kissed the feet of leaders from South Sudan, including President, Salva Kiir Mayardit, and vice president designates Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng De Mabio Garang at the Casa Santa Marta, Vatican in Rome.
Vatican described the gesture as “remarkable” and “spontaneous.”
The South Sudan leaders are attending a spiritual retreat which was opened by the Cardinal Secretary of State Pietro Parolin.
The retreat brings together the highest civil and ecclesiastical authorities of this young African country, which gained its independence from Sudan in 2011.
Breaking protocol, at the conclusion of his remarks at the end of the spiritual retreat, Pope Francis fell to his knees, kissing the feet of South Sudan’s civil authorities.
“To the three of you who signed the Peace Agreement, I ask you, as a brother, remain in peace,” the Pope said.
“I ask you from the heart. Let us move forward. There will be many problems, but don’t be afraid, go forward, resolve the problems,” he added.
In impromptu remarks following his address, Pope Francis said, “You have started a process; may it end well. Although struggles will arise, he said, these should stay “within the office”.
However in public, he said, “before the people: [keep your] hands united”.
In this way, the Pope said, “from simple citizens, you will become Fathers of the Nation”.
South Sudan degenerated into a bloody civil war in December 2013, just two years after attaining independence from Khartoum.
Millions of people have displaced internally and to neighboring countries including Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan and Kenya.
In his prepared remarks, the Holy Father reflected on “the gaze of God”, and “the gaze of the people”.
He began his address with the words used by the risen Lord to greet his “disconsolate disciples”, following the resurrection: “Peace be with you!”
“Peace is the first gift that the Lord brought us”, he said, “and the first commitment that leaders of nations must pursue. Peace is the fundamental condition for ensuring the rights of each individual and the integral development of an entire people”.
The gaze of God
The Pope continued by reflecting on the unique nature of the meeting in the Vatican: a “spiritual retreat…marked by interior recollection, trusting prayer, deep reflection and encounters of reconciliation”.
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”.