When Pope Francis jets into Africa this week, like his predecessors, he will be making a spiritual journey to a part of the world that is important to the Catholic Church.
But beyond the martyrs and saints of East Africa, he will be wading into and trying to resolve existential issues that threaten not just Catholicism but the Christian faith in general.
In East Africa, he will be coming to one of the frontlines of religious extremism and intolerance as seen in recent terrorist attacks in Kenya — Westgate and Garissa and the 2014 World Cup finals bombings in Kampala.
According to sources familiar with Papal visits, any pope wears two hats — a spiritual and political one. He is the leader of the world’s largest faith but also head of its smallest state. Because he does not have his own military to project force however, he relies on the power of his stature to build those alliances that influence global events.
In the case of Uganda, just like his predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, Pope Francis will partly be coming to pay homage to the young men who gave their lives for Christianity.
He had been invited by the Catholic House of Bishops to attend the 50th anniversary of the canonisation of the martyrs last year but could not make it.
But he will still want to promote co-operation between the different religious denominations and engage the youth who are important to the future of the church in the face of growing liberalism. The Uganda martyrs straddle the religious divide with Anglicans, Catholics and Muslims all having shrines to the martyrs.
It has been confirmed that the pope will visit the Anglican shrine at Namugongo where the bulk of martyrs — 45 — met their death before proceeding for mass at the Catholic shrine nearby.
The pope will later meet the youth in a separate meeting at Kololo ceremonial grounds to counter the trend of social liberalism drawing more youth away from the church, according to insiders. The same logic explains his scheduled engagement with Kenyan youth but significantly, youth have playing a pivotal role in developments both positive and negative around the continent, fighting in civil wars and fanning social unrest.
“He is definitely landing into a multiplicity of political, religious and geopolitical issues,” says Captain Francis Babu, a practising catholic who has also been involved in preparing for the pontiff’s visit to Uganda.
In Kenya and the Central African Republic, the pontiff will have to deal with the question of religious coexistence while also encouraging his followers to keep faith and hope in the church. With the Al Shabaab attacks in that appeared to target non-Muslims, there are fears that extremism could turn into full blown religious violence with Christian fundamentalism rising to counter perceived threats from Muslims.
His scheduled visit to a mosque during the Central African Republic leg of his African tour is intended to drive home the message of co-existence.
According to Babu, with its saints, martyrs and huge following, Africa is a bastion of Catholicism.
“We are perhaps more Catholic than anywhere else with Catholics forming the majority of the populations in east, central and west Africa so he will need this region to stand against existential threats to the future of Catholicism, “ Babu says citing the mounting pressure to remove celibacy for priests homosexuality and, abortion.
Babu says this region is also important for the church given the flagging numbers of faithful elsewhere.
Although Pope Francis has tried to keep as much pomp out of his visit as is practically possible and kept his engagements with the political heads brief, The EastAfrican has learned that he will try to draw the attention of his hosts to the plight of the underprivileged and seek assurances that the church’s humanitarian work will not be curtailed new controls being mooted in many of these countries against the activities of non-governmental organisations.
In many developing countries, the church provides social services, such as schools and healthcare but there is a rising tide against the role non-governmental actors.
“While he will definitely want to know how Christians are being treated and how they are working with other faiths politically, human rights issues will form part of his engagement with his hosts,” Babu adds.
SOURCE: THE EAST AFRICAN