Pope Francis kneels to kiss the feet of South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit at the Vatican.
CNN  — 

Pope Francis has broken with papal protocol by kneeling to kiss the feet of South Sudan leaders at the Vatican.

A video released by the Vatican shows an aide on Thursday assisting the 82-year-old Francis, who was breathing heavily, so he could kiss the feet of President Salva Kiir Mayardit. He then moved on to Vice Presidents-designate Riek Machar and Rebecca Nyandeng de Mabior.

Kiir and Machar were once rivals, with Kiir accusing Machar – his former deputy – of staging a 2013 coup. Years of civil war followed. In 2018, they signed a peace agreement in Ethiopia, and they are now attempting to form a stable government together.

“To you three, who have signed a peace agreement,” the Pope said, “I ask you as a brother, remain in peace.”

The South Sudanese politicians were staying at the Pope’s Vatican residence for an unprecedented two-day spiritual retreat, the idea of Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, the head of the Anglican Church.

Vatican News, the official media outlet of the Holy See, called the Pope’s gesture “surprising and moving,” one that “cannot be understood except in the climate of reciprocal forgiveness that characterized the two days of retreat.”