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A rejuvenated Pope Francis revels in Congo’s energy

The faithful react during a meeting with Pope Francis at Martyrs' Stadium in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, on Thursday. (Ciro Fusco/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
3 min

KINSHASA, Democratic Republic of Congo — He entered the stadium Thursday to pulsating music, with rapturous roars following his popemobile as it made a slow horseshoe around the track. It was yet another day in which Congolese crowds fed Pope Francis with extraordinary energy.

And the 86-year-old pope gave it back in abundance.

Already one of the oldest figures to lead the global Catholic Church, Francis at times in recent years has looked frail or depleted. He struggles to walk and has admitted to tiring more easily when traveling. It was unclear whether a three-day venture in one of the world’s most chaotic capitals, followed by two days in South Sudan, would take an even deeper toll.

But so far, it seems to have given Francis a burst of vitality.

Pope Frances on Feb. 1 led a morning Mass before a crowd of over 1 million in Kinshasa, Congo. His six-day trip also includes a visit to South Sudan. (Video: Joe Snell/The Washington Post, Photo: AP Photo/Moses Sawasawa/The Washington Post)

Speaking to a packed stadium of young people, he was downright exuberant. Though Francis often reads speeches in a monotone, face hanging downward, on Thursday he was improvising, gesturing and even egging on the crowd. His voice was strong. The crowd loved it.

“You’re very good,” Francis at one point told the crowd, as it broke into chanting and song.

Francis hasn’t had similar celebratory highlights during other recent trips in part because of the destinations he’s chosen. A trip to Iraq was tight with security. A trip to Canada was kept somber, based on the pope’s goal of reconciling for the church’s historic wrongdoing toward Indigenous people. Other recent trips — to Kazakhstan, Bahrain — have taken him to countries without the same mass of adoring Catholics.

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Francis’s speech Thursday was based on giving young people values that could guide their lives, with the idea of five “ingredients for the future” — one for each finger on the hand. It scarcely mattered that the metaphor was overwrought. One of the values was community, and Francis bemoaned the emptiness of social media, lives consumed by “tapping a screen with a finger.”

He then had an idea, unmentioned in a draft text of the speech.

He leaned toward somebody else onstage and asked if there might be a song that everybody knows.

“Let us now try to feel very concretely what it means to build community,” Francis said, asking that everybody — bishops, VIPs, people in the highest rafters — hold hands. The pope reached for the hand of the interpreter next to him.

“Now, everybody holding hands together, let us all sing a song,” Francis said.

Somebody came to a microphone on the stage. For the next two minutes, the stadium boomed with prayerful song.

“Did you see how beautiful that was, to be in community?” Francis said.

He continued his speech, and the atmosphere buzzed. A few minutes later, when he came to a point about corruption — a huge problem in Congo — people were out of their seats, waving flags, roaring.

Francis stopped, gesturing his hands as if to whip up the crowd.

It sounded like a soccer match — a minute of chanting.

“I like this song,” Francis said, though at some point the chanting turned political, with people in the Lingala language targeting their ire at Congo’s president, telling him his mandate was “over.”

At one point Francis, tried to resume the speech, but the grandstands were rocking.

“Now I want to tell you something very important,” he said as things finally settled down. “Pay attention. If someone offers you a bribe or promises you favors and lots of money, do not fall into the trap.

“Do not be overcome by evil. Overcome evil with good.”