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Pope Francis Comes To Africa With A Vision. Will It Stick?

Pope Francis waves as he arrives at Zimpeto Stadium in Maputo, Mozambique, on Thursday, where he led a public Mass.
Tiziana Fabi
AFP/Getty Images
Pope Francis waves as he arrives at Zimpeto Stadium in Maputo, Mozambique, on Thursday, where he led a public Mass.

This week, Pope Francis began a seven-day trip to Madagascar, Mauritius and Mozambique. On his second visit to sub-Saharan Africa, he hopes to offer comfort and rekindle unity in a region struggling with natural disasters, poverty and religious and political tensions.

He is being greeted with great enthusiasm. At a stadium in the capital city of Maputo, Mozambique, on Thursday, admirers stood up and cheered, swaying to the beat of the drums, phones up to film his entrance. As he rode his popemobile down a street, women ran up just to touch his hand. And people waved flags as he visited the Zimpeto Hospital, which treats patients with HIV/AIDS.

If this trip is anything like his last one to sub-Saharan Africa, when he visited the Central African Republic, Kenya and Uganda in 2015, observers say it will be inspiring to many. But is there a more lasting legacy?

Pope Francis holds a baby during a visit to Zimpeto Hospital in Maputo.
Alessandra Tarantino / AP
Pope Francis holds a baby during a visit to Zimpeto Hospital in Maputo.

Researchers and religious leaders are asking the same question.

There has been evidence that papal visits can change attitudes, says Edward Maibach, director of George Mason University's Center for Climate Change Communication. In a 2015 study in partnership with Yale University, he found that Pope Francis' five-day visit to the U.S. in September 2015 made some Americans rethink their views on climate change. During that trip, in an address widely covered by the media, the pope urged all nations to come together to protect the Earth from global warming — a message from his encyclical released in June 2015, Laudato Si: On Care of Our Common Home.

"By following a cohort of Americans over five months [from before and after the pope's visit], we found that there were more Americans who were engaged on the issue [of climate change] than previously," says Maibach. According to the survey of 905 Americans, 17% of Americans surveyed and 35% of American Catholics say the pope's statements about climate change influenced their own views.

Unfortunately, the attitude shift on climate change was short-lived, Maibach says. "In subsequent surveys over the next several years, we found the 'Francis effect' wore off."

"It's entirely understandable why that would be so," Maibach adds. "It was almost a foregone conclusion that the pope's impact would wear off over time because he wasn't repeating the message often [and] activating other Catholic voices in America to repeat his message."

What about the pope's visit to sub-Saharan Africa in 2015? Did it usher in changes?

"Yes and no," says Stan Chu Ilo, a Nigerian priest who is a professor of Catholic studies at DePaul University in Chicago and the author of "A Poor And Merciful Church: The Illuminative Ecclesiology of Pope Francis."

His "yes" applies to the pope's efforts to resolve ongoing tensions between Muslims and Christians in the Central African Republic.

In the years since the 2015 trip, the pope has taken a personal interest in the issue, says Ilo, staying in touch with CAR President Faustin-Archange Touadéra. The president recommitted to Francis' call for reconciliation on a visit to the Vatican in 2016.

In addition, the pope appointed Dieudonné Nzapalainga, a Central African based in Bangui, to the role of cardinal priest in 2016, one of the highest positions in the Roman Catholic Church. True to Francis' vision, Nzapalainga has spoken out against violence between Muslims and Christians in his country and has demanded peace.

Ilo can't say the same for Kenya and Uganda, which Francis also visited in 2015. Francis called on local leaders to create jobs for the poor, improve life for slum dwellers and protect them from displacement.

But the pope was not able to get local religious and political leaders to address those issues as he did in the CAR, says Ilo.

"Nothing concrete has happened since then," says Ilo, who is also the president of a Catholic charity that supports women in income-generating activities in impoverished neighborhoods in Nairobi. He visited the area in 2017. "I have not seen any improvement in the lives of slum dwellers. Rather we are seeing that [developers] are trying to pull down the houses of poor people because they want to construct a railway line."

Ilo acknowledges that part of the problem is how hard it is for African church leaders to take a stand. "They must rise up beyond the corruption, beyond the despair, beyond the alliance of powers and privileges to reverse the unacceptable history of Africa," he says.

Even if Francis does not achieve all his economic and political goals on this current trip to sub-Saharan Africa, he certainly has the attention and respect of the public.

For many, the pope is a role model, and people are interested in what he has to say. "They listen in part because he's famous — and people all over the world respond to celebrity. And they listen because of his moral authority. Even if you aren't Catholic, you recognize that this man is an honest broker," says Maibach. "Especially in a world where we don't talk in terms of ethics and morality."

Allen Ottaro, 36, executive director of the Nairobi-based Catholic Youth Network for Environmental Sustainability in Africa, recalls an unforgettable moment from Francis' visit to Kenya in 2015.

"During a meeting with young people in Nairobi, in response to a question from a young person about the scourge of tribalism in Kenya, I remember Pope Francis asking everyone to stand and hold hands and say, 'We are one people,' " Ottaro says. "He wasn't saying it as someone who has a stake in the country but out of deep love for humanity."

Alice Ruhweza, vice president of Conservation International-Africa and a 2019 Aspen New Voices fellow, remembers how she felt when the pope visited her homeland, Uganda, in 2015, when the country was grappling with political tensions as opposition leaders tried to end President Yoweri Museveni's nearly 30-year reign.

"Thousands of people, both Christians and non-Christians, convened at Namugongo [for a public Mass]," she wrote in an email to NPR. "His message filled our hearts with hope. For a better Uganda, amidst our challenges."

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Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.