VATICAN CITY (AP) - Pope Francis is opening a six-day visit to Congo and South Sudan on Tuesday, aiming to bring a message of peace to two countries riven by poverty, conflict and what Francis has called a lingering "colonialist mentality" that still considers Africa ripe for exploitation.
Aid groups are hoping Francis' trip will shine a spotlight on two of the world's forgotten conflicts and rekindle international attention on some of Africa's worst humanitarian crises, amid donor fatigue and new aid priorities in Ukraine.
But Francis' trip will also bring him face-to-face with the future of the Catholic Church: Africa is one of the only places in the world where the Catholic flock is growing, in terms of practicing faithful as well as fresh vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
That makes his trip, his fifth to the African continent in his 10-year pontificate, all the more important as Francis seeks to make his mark on reshaping the church as a "field hospital for wounded souls" where all are welcome and poor people have a special pride of place.
"Yes, Africa is in turmoil and is also suffering from the invasion of exploiters," Francis told The Associated Press in an interview last week. But he said the church can also learn from the continent and its people.
"We need to listen to their culture: dialogue, learn, talk, promote," Francis said, suggesting that his message would differ from the scolding tone St. John Paul II used in 1980 and 1985 when he reminded Congolese priests and bishops of the need to stick to their celibacy vows.
Congo, Francis' first stop, stands out as the African country with most Catholics hands down: Half of its 105 million people are Catholic, the country counts more than 6,000 priests, 10,000 nuns and more than 4,000 seminarians - 3.6% of the global total of young men studying for the priesthood.
Congolese faithful were flocking to Kinshasa for Francis' main event, a Mass on Wednesday at Ndolo airport that is expected to draw as many as 2 million people in one of the biggest gatherings of its kind in Congo and one of Francis' biggest Masses ever.
"There are people who chartered planes to come here because there were so many of them!" marveled Inniance Mukania, who travelled to Kinshasa from the Kolwezi diocese in southern Congo.
On the eve of the pope's visit, President Felix Tshisekedi met with foreign diplomats in Kinshasa and told them the visit was a sign of solidarity "particularly with the battered populations of the eastern part of the country, prey to acts of violence and intolerance that you are witnessing."
Jesus-Noel Sheke, technical coordinator of the organizing committee for the papal visit, said nearly everything was ready at Ndolo, where organizers have arranged for 22 giant screens to carry the service live.
"There are only a few decorations left," he told journalists of the preparations over the weekend. "They will be done the day before."
The trip was originally scheduled for July, but was postponed because of Francis' knee problems. It was also supposed to have included a stop in Goma, in eastern Congo, but the surrounding North Kivu region has been plagued by intense fighting between government troops and the M23 rebel group, as well as attacks by militants linked to the Islamic State group.
The fighting has displaced some 5.7 million people, a fifth of them last year alone, according to the World Food Program.
Instead, Francis will meet with a delegation of people from the east who will travel to Kinshasa for a private encounter at the Vatican embassy. The plan calls for them to participate in a ceremony jointly committing to forgive their assailants.
While the people of Goma were saddened that Francis won't be visiting the east, "we hope with the visit that the pope can bring a message of peace to the people of Congo who need it," said Providence Bireke, a Goma-based manager with AVSI, an Italian aid group active in the area.
The second leg of Francis' trip will bring him to South Sudan, the world's youngest country where continued fighting has hampered implementation of a 2018 peace deal to end a civil war. Francis first voiced his hope of visiting the majority Christian country in 2017, but security concerns prevented a visit and only contributed to worsening a humanitarian crisis that has displaced more than 2 million people.
The South Sudan stop also marks a novelty in the history of papal travel, in that Francis will be joined on the ground by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Church of Scotland, the Rt. Rev. Iain Greenshields.
The aim of the three-way visit is to show a united Christian commitment to helping South Sudan make progress on the implementation of the 2018 accord. Francis presided over a similar joint initiative in 2019 in the Vatican when he famously got down on hands and knees and kissed the feet of South Sudan's rival leaders, begging them to make peace.
Since then, progress on implementing the accord - in particular creating a unified army comprised of government forces and opposition fighters - has been "painfully slow," said Paolo Impagliazzo of the Sant'Egidio Community, which has spearheaded an initiative to bring the groups that didn't sign onto the 2018 accord into the process.
"The visit will bring hope to the people," Impagliazzo said in an interview in Rome. "And I believe the visit will strengthen the churches - the Anglican Church, the Catholic Church, the local church - that are playing a critical role in bringing about peace and dialogue in South Sudan."
One area of particular concern remains the widespread availability of firearms among the civilian population, which has led to continued fighting in areas as cattle herders seek more land or faction leaders seek to gain more territory, he said.
The Small Arms Survey estimated in 2017 that there were some 1.2 million firearms in the possession of South Sudanese civilians, or 1 for every 10 people. The estimate was believed low and pales in comparison to the number of per capita firearms in Europe or the U.S., but remains an outstanding issue that "will not go ahead until we have the possibility to have a unified army," Impagliazzo said.
Francis has long denounced the weapons industry, calling traffickers "merchants of death." In the AP interview, he repeated his condemnation.
"The world is obsessed with having weapons," Francis said. "Instead of making the effort to help us live, we make the effort to help us kill."
Kamale and Ntshangase reported from Kinshasa, Congo. Sam Mednick contributed from Dakar, Senegal.