Looking out at tens of thousands of smiling faces, Pope Francis told South Sudanese Catholics that the only way the country will get out of the darkness of violence is with the light of their faith and their commitment to peace.
"In the name of Jesus and of his beatitudes, let us lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge, in order to take up those of prayer and charity," the pope said Feb. 5 as he celebrated a morning Mass in Juba on the grounds of the John Garang Mausoleum.
Garang led the country to the 2005 peace agreement that set the stage for the country's independence from Sudan in 2011. Unfortunately, a civil war broke out two years later and repeated attempts to negotiate peace and a power-sharing agreement have failed to quell the violence.
Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, attended the Mass, which came at the end of the ecumenical pilgrimage for peace that they were making with the pope. Some 60% of South Sudanese are Christian with the Catholic, Episcopalian and Presbyterian churches traditionally being the largest.
President Salva Kiir, a Catholic, and other government leaders also were present.
South Sudanese authorities said thousands of people kept streaming to the site as the Mass began, and by the time of the homily there were close to 100,000 people present.
Exhorting South Sudanese Christians to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world," as the day's Gospel reading called them to be, Pope Francis told the people, "This country, so beautiful yet ravaged by violence, needs the light that each one of you has, or better, the light that each one of you is."
The path toward peace, he said, requires that people "overcome the dislikes and aversions that over time have become chronic and risk pitting tribes and ethnic groups against one another."
In fact, he said, it is time "to apply the salt of forgiveness to our wounds; salt burns but it also heals. Even if our hearts bleed for the wrongs we have suffered, let us refuse, once and for all, to repay evil with evil, and we will grow healthy within.
"Let us accept one another and love one another with sincerity and generosity, as God loves us," the pope said. "Let us cherish the good that we are, and not allow ourselves to be corrupted by evil!"
After so much war and violence, with some 4 million people displaced in the country or abroad, with poverty raging and the threat of hunger looming for the majority of South Sudanese, Pope Francis said he understands that individuals may feel small and powerless.
But, he said, the salt that the Gospel calls them to be is also small, as just a pinch makes all the difference.
"Before we worry about the darkness surrounding us, before we hope that the shadows around us will lighten, we are called to radiate light, to give brightness to our cities, our villages and homes, our acquaintances and all our daily activities by our lives and good works," the pope said. "The Lord will give us strength, the strength to be light in him, so that everyone will see our good works, and seeing them, as Jesus reminds us, they will rejoice in God and give him glory."