KINSHASA, Congo -
Pope Francis on Wednesday urged Congo's people to forgive those who have harmed them as he presided over a Mass before an estimated 1 million people who flocked to his first main event in Africa dedicated to peace and reconciliation for a country wracked by decades of violence.
Many of the Congolese faithful spent the night before the Mass on the vast airfields of Kinshasa's Ndolo airport and passed the hours before Francis' arrival singing, dancing and getting jazzed up for the first papal visit since St. John Paul II's last trip in 1985.
They cheered wildly when Francis began a languid loop around the airfields in his open-sided popemobile, some of them running alongside or waving flags. Many of the women wore dresses and skirts made of pagne, a wax print fabric featuring images of Francis or other religious symbols.
Pope Francis celebrates a holy mass at Ndolo Airport during his apostolic journey, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Feb. 1, 2023.
"Today I understand the enthusiasm of my grandmother when Pope John Paul II came," said Julie Mbuyi, a 45-year-old mother of two who was wearing a Francis-themed outfit. "She was so excited to see him and the night before she couldn't close her eyes!"
The crowd cheered again when the Argentine pope greeted them in Lingala, one of four national languages of Congo that is widely spoken in the capital, Kinshasa. And they listened attentively as he urged them in his homily to open their hearts to forgiveness, citing the example of Christ who forgave those who betrayed him.
"He showed them his wounds, because forgiveness is born from wounds," Francis said. "It is born when our wounds do not leave scars of hatred, but become the means by which we make room for others and accept their weaknesses. Our weakness becomes an opportunity, and forgiveness becomes the path to peace."
Referring to the decades of violence especially in Congo's east that has forced millions to flee their homes, Francis stressed that forgiving doesn't mean pretending that nothing bad has happened. But he said the act of forgiveness creates an "amnesty of the heart."
"What great good it does us to cleanse our hearts of anger and remorse, of every trace of resentment and hostility!" he said.
The morning Mass was Francis' first big event in Congo after he arrived on Tuesday and, in his opening speech to government authorities, condemned the centuries-long plundering of Africa's mineral and natural wealth by foreign powers.
Later Tuesday, Francis was to meet with victims of the fighting in Congo's east, where rebel groups have intensified attacks over the past year as they seek to expand their territory. The meeting was to feature testimonies of people who have suffered unspeakable atrocities.
Francis had originally planned to visit the North Kivu provincial capital, Goma, but had to cancel the stop due to the fighting that has forced some 5.7 million people to flee their homes, exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Congo where already some 26.4 million people were facing hunger, according to the World Food Program.
"When we heard that Pope Francis was no longer coming to our province of North Kivu, my husband and I decided to come all the way to Kinshasa to see and hear him," said Jeanne Kahota as she waited for Francis' Mass to begin. She said she was old enough to remember John Paul's visit but wasn't able to follow it closely.
"That's why we said to ourselves that this kind of appointment doesn't happen every day, it's exceptional and we didn't want to miss it again."
Worshipers greet Pope Francis as he arrives at Ndolo airport to celebrate Holy Mass, in Kinshasa, Congo, Feb. 1, 2023.
Roughly half of Congo's 105 million people are Catholic, according to Vatican statistics.
Fighting in eastern Congo, which has more than 120 armed groups, has simmered for years but spiked in late 2021 with the resurgence of the M23 group, which had been largely dormant for nearly a decade. The rebels have captured swaths of land and are accused by the United Nations and rights groups of committing atrocities against civilians.
Francis on Tuesday condemned the fighting and was to repeat his call for peace during his meeting with victims of the conflict. The appointment was to include a joint call for the victims to pardon their assailants, according to Vatican organizers.
The Vatican estimated that 1 million people were on hand for Francis' Mass, citing local organizers. The airport fields had a capacity of 1.5 million people and were not full by the time Francis' Mass began.
Among the faithful was Clement L'onde, who travelled from Kisantu, a town in the province of Central Kongo, more than 150 kilometers from Kinshasa. He planned to participate in all of Francis' events.
"To my children and to the children who stayed in my city, I will bring them the message of the Holy Father, the message of peace and reconciliation,' he said.