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Why did Pope Francis kiss the feet of the South Sudanese leaders?

As most of the media outlets reported, the Roman Pontiff kissed the feet of South Sudanese president Salva Kiir and former rebel leader Riek Machar during a two-day spiritual retreat at the Vatican.

It was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby’s idea for Kiir, a Catholic, Machar, a Presbyterian and South Sudan’s Christian and political leaders to come to the Pope’s home for a two-day spiritual retreat. Archbishop Welby handed each of the leaders a Bible with the following message: “seek that which unites. Overcome that which divides.”

Like a retreat director, the Pope urged leaders to examine their consciences and ask “what does the Lord want me to forgive and what in my attitude does he want me to change?” He added: “We may well have made mistakes, some rather small, others much greater. Yet the Lord Jesus always forgives the errors of those who repent.” Urging them to put their differences behind them, Francis said that the people of South Sudan “are wearied, exhausted by past conflicts,” that they are “yearning for a better future, which can only come about through reconciliation and peace.”

“I am asking you as a brother to stay in peace. I am asking you with my heart, let us go forward,” the 82-year-old pontiff said after he performed the rare gesture.

The president and his rival, the former rebel leader, clashed in 2013 leading to a civil war that left 400,000 people dead. More than 4 million people have since been displaced, with about 1.8 million internally uprooted and approximately 2.5 million have fled to neighbouring countries, especially Kenya, Sudan, and Uganda.

The Pope humbled himself and in a sense, as a representative of the Catholic Church, all Catholics. Watching the spiritual leader of the world kneeling in front of two warlords and their entourage, kissing their feet and asking them for peace was not a pleasant watch. To be honest, I could not tolerate it at first viewing; I needed to revisit the site to watch it to the end.

But the question remains – why did Pope Francis do this.

Why did he choose to kiss the feet of people who directly or indirectly are responsible for hundreds of thousands of people’s death, and the immense suffering of millions? Was this gesture really worth it? And was it a planned action or just the fruit of spontaneous inspiration?

His goal seems clear to me: he wanted to show these people the importance of peace and show that there is nothing he would not do to stop the taking of innocent lives in South Sudan and all Africa. His was an effort to halt the senseless massacres, the ethnic cleansings, the recruitment of tens of thousands of children soldiers, not to mention the brutality that the South Sudanese war and most of the African armed conflicts have caused.

From this angle,  one can’t help but agree that trying to convince these people about their immense responsibility and trying to change their will towards the good justifies his unusual gestures.

By doing this, Pope Francis clearly wanted to imitate Christ who washed the feet of the apostles.

But was this the right gesture? 

What did Christ really do? What did his gesture mean? What was his message?

He, as our Redeemer and our King, did what servants used to do in those times. His goal was to show to his initial followers, those whom he empowered to be his envoys, that they should act with the same humility towards each other. His message was an all-encompassing call to holiness, an invitation to become totally Christ-like.

But Christ  not only washed their feet. He also gave them a very concrete message by saying:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

Now, in the light of the washing of the feet let us reflect on the kissing of the shoes of these political and military leaders.

  1. Christ did not kiss the feet, much less the shoes of the apostles. He washed their feet. He did what servants did because he wanted to show that the one who leads others has also to be a servant – just like he was, and so, as Lord and King washed their feet.
  2. Kissing the feet shows submission in every culture, from ancient Israel right up to contemporary ones. So when a Pope, the Vicar of Christ kisses the shoes of secular leaders, he, as a person and as the Vicar of Christ exhibits a sign of submission to them.
  3. When a pope kisses the feet of someone, it immediately calls to mind that in ordinary proceedings, it is he whose feet are kissed at an ordinary encounter. When a pontiff’s feet are kissed, a submission towards Christ , who he as the supreme leader of the Church represents, is expressed. Yes, it is a sign of submission – but not to men but rather to the Son of God.
  4. When Pope Francis kissed the feet of these people he probably wanted to show how important he considered the people whom these political and military leaders represent. But even if he referred to the people of South Sudan with this gesture, he still showed a definite sign of submission – not to God, but to his creatures, to a particular group of people.
  5. When Christ washed the feet of the apostles, he knew he was doing something special, something that his people would not understand. The apostles probably felt awkward with Jesus washing their feet. And because of this, it was imperative for Christ to give a detailed and well-phrased rationale about what he just did.
  6. When Pope Francis kissed the feet of his guests, he could see and feel that the people on the receiving end did not understand what was going on. They could hardly handle it. One of them attempted to stop Pope Francis doing what he was doing but could not. Yet the pontiff did not give an explanation, he only asked for peace. His gesture and his petition seemed to be disengaged unless we interpret the whole thing as a strong supplication.

But it is not only Jesus Christ who we can have a look at, but there is also a closer example in time, Pope John Paul II. Let us remember what he did to Ali Agca when they met in prison —he hugged him. Or what the same pope did when he met Fidel Castro. He treated him with respect and love; he looked at him with affection. Also, he asked pardon for all the sins the Church committed throughout its history. He was a humble pope who represented a humble church and called us as  Catholics to be humble.

But he never humiliated himself, nor the Church he represented.

I believe a pope should not kiss the shoes of any man or woman, but he did so, and who am I to say what a pope should do.

But clearly, there is one huge opportunity he missed. Once he did it, he should have given a clear rationale— just as Christ did.  He might have said: “If I do this to you who is Pope, Pontiff and the Vicar of Christ on Earth, how much more you should do this to your own people whom you are to lead and serve. Now go home, build a peaceful and prosperous South Sudan and never ever dare to get your men and women in such insurmountable suffering as you did in the past,” but he didn’t.

Pope Francis last week withdrew his hand, this week he kisses feet. 

Holy Father, if you still have a chance to give this message to the leaders of South Sudan, please do so. It would be for the benefit of them, of their people and all the world, especially we as Catholics who are trying to follow your lead.

 

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