(OSV News) – Across regions where armies recently fought deadly battles, a Catholic bishop in South Sudan has embarked on a long and grueling trek to meet the pope.
Bishop Christian Carlassare of Rumbek is walking for nearly 93 miles of the 260 that separate his diocese in the center of the country and the capital city of Juba.
The 46-year-old member of the Comboni Missionaries of the Heart of Jesus started the walk in the company of 80 youth Jan. 25.
In what is called the Ecumenical Pilgrimage of Peace Feb. 3-5, Pope Francis will visit South Sudan's capital, Juba, in the presence of Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. The apostolic trip will follow one to Congo, where the pope landed Jan. 31.
At the launch of the "Walking for Peace" pilgrimage, the bishop was joined by Anglican Bishop Alapayo Manyang Kuctiel of Rumbek; Rin Tueny, the governor of Lakes State; and Sr. Orla Treacy, an award-winning Irish Loreto sister who has devoted her life to educating young women threatened by early and forced marriages.
The bishop and his team hope to reach the capital Feb. 2, a day before Pope Francis, Archbishop Welby and Rev. Greenshields are scheduled to arrive. On Jan. 31, the seventh day of the pilgrimage, Sister Orla tweeted: "Wonderful day 7, arrived in Mingkaman. Home to so many IDPs (Internally Displaced People), a simple and beautiful journey. We are all appreciating what we have at home."
Bishop Carlassare told OSV News that the young people who take part in such an experience are courageous and inspiring.
"Through the tiredness and the pain that is there, there is also great joy, and I myself really feel transformed and pushed by this joy of the youth," he said, speaking from the town of Yirol, where the group arrived Jan. 29, the fifth day of the pilgrimage.
The day before, on Jan. 28, Sr. Orla wrote on Twitter that the group is "tired, blistered, sore" but that they had "a beautiful welcome" from the local community of Yirol.
In South Sudan, Catholics, members of the Church of England and Presbyterian churches form a large part of the Christian community. South Sudan is the world’s newest nation with a population of 11 million.
"We are aware we are going in the name of all the dioceses. Not everybody could go, but we are honored to go to receive the blessing of this visit and to carry it back," said the Italian-born Bishop Carlassare, who was shot in his leg at his residence in Rumbek on April 26, 2021, just a month after the Vatican appointed him to lead the diocese. The attack forced the rescheduling of his consecration as bishop of the South Central diocese.
Since his consecration on March 25, 2022, the bishop has urged for peace and reconciliation.
Bishop Carlassare said that in the journey, they had realized how much this small team of walking youth and religious represented the hope of the country and the church.
Everyday the pilgrims have walked between 12 and 15 miles, usually in the morning. They cover the rest of the distance (between 13 to 16 miles daily) by car in order to reach the Christian communities. In the communities, the young participants of the pilgrimage have been performing plays that focused on the message of peace.
"The people remain really impressed by these dramas. They are astounded and really appreciate the power of these youth and the hope they are bringing to the communities as they go for the visit of the pope," Bishop Carlassare said, explaining that the purpose of the journey is to walk together and also pray, reflect and inspire the communities.
According to the bishop, Christian life demands that the followers do things differently, especially amid difficulty.
"We are called as children of God to recognize the brotherhood and fraternity that binds all of us together. It is so beautiful to be recognized as brothers and sisters when we work for reconciliation," he said.
The East African country has experienced civil war since 2013. According to various reports, more than 400,000 people have died due to the war, and more than 4 million have been internally displaced or fled the country.