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Pope Francis to Listen to African Women, Youth

When Pope Francis travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan at the end of the month, he has plans to not only hold prayer services and meet with political leaders but to hear the stories of many ordinary African Catholics — especially women and youth — many of whom have experienced violence and hunger.

Stan Chu Ilo, a religious scholar and professor at DePaul University in Chicago, says the pope wants to hear from women and young people on thorny topics such as leadership roles of women in the church, marriage and celibacy.

The pontiff is very concerned about the plight of women who have borne the brunt of deadly conflicts in the DRC and South Sudan, Ilo said, especially the sexual exploitation of women.

"The Pope is hoping to encounter these women to hear from them. So he’s not just going to like helicopter fast in and out, he’s going to have one-on-ones with these women to hear their stories."

The church is seeing its biggest population growth on the African continent. Out of 1.36 billion Catholics, 236 million are African.

On November 1, 2022, Ilo along with a group of Vatican representatives organized a virtual meeting between more than 3,000 young African Catholics and Francis as part of the synod.

"The Pope was very, very animated during that conversation. It was meant to be an hour; it was an hour and thirty minutes," Ilo told VOA. He said Francis will meet with some of those people in person in Kinshasa, adding, "Pope Francis believes that the future of Africa will be determined by the young people."

Ilo said Francis will not be able to change the minds of hardline conservatives in the church — who still hold sway in Africa — overnight.

It will be more of an ecumenical visit in South Sudan, Ilo said, "but he’s going to be there with other church leaders." The issue of clerical sexual abuse will be front and center in the DRC.

In South Sudan, which has been in the grips of hunger and violence ever since its five year long civil war ended in 2018. Many in the country hope the pontiff's visit will bring about real change between President Salva Kiir and his deputy and longtime rival Riek Machar, who hails from a different ethnic group.

Archbishop of Juba Stephen Ameyu Martin Mulla said Wednesday that preparations are in high gear for the reception in South Sudan.

"On behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of South Sudan and Sudan, we are ready to receive the Holy Father to South Sudan in Juba. We think that his coming will be enriching us all as a church but also as a nation," said Mulla addressing reporters in the capital of Juba.

Last year, Francis convened a "synodal process" to ascertain fresh views from Catholics worldwide on the future of the church. It is considered one of the most ambitious dialogues ever undertaken on updating Catholic beliefs and practices since the Second Vatican Council’s reforms in 1965.

Pope Francis arrives in the DRC on Jan. 31 and stays until Feb. 3, when he travels to South Sudan, where he is scheduled to spend two days before returning to the Vatican.

South Sudan in Focus reporter Charlton Doki contributed to this report.