On the occasion of his 40th apostolic journey and only the fifth to Africa, I decided to take a step back and reflect on the Pope’s visit to the DRC from January 31 to February 3, 2023. Did this visit achieve its objectives and are there lessons to be learned? To help me in this reflection are Fathers Alois Kituba, an SMA priest from the Democratic Republic of Congo based in Lyon and Godefroid Mombula Alekiabo, CICM in Kinshasa.
(Illustration photo) -Pope Francis with President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Félix-Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo, Jan. 31 in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo. ( Credit photo AP/Gregorio Borgia).
Pope Francis has finally fulfilled his promise to the Congolese people and especially to Catholic Christians. The long wait for this visit ended on Teusday, January 31, 2023 at 3:00 pm local time, when the Pope’s plane landed and he was able to set foot on Congolese soil. Scenes of joy and jubilation for the people amassed along the avenues and main streets of Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Dominic: All the world’s media have reported the Pope’s visit as a global event, but the real question is what this visit has produced in the hearts of the Congolese, especially among Catholic Christians. What did the Pope’s visit bring to the Congolese people?
Alois: “Expectation is the fruit of hope, the Congolese people were honored and consoled by the Pope’s visit, which gave rise to hope through the message of the call for reconciliation of the Congolese people, ruined and devastated by more than three decades of war and violence, especially in the eastern part (Goma, Kivu, etc) of the country.
“ALL RECONCILIED IN JESUS CHRIST” was the summary of Pope Francis’ message during his visit to the Congo. This message invited all the people without exception, starting from politicians, men of religion to the little people, in order to echo the national anthem of the Congo: “Stand up Congolese, united by fate…“, a call to unity and brotherhood without which there can be no lasting peace.”
Dominic: The violence in this region has made it one of the countries with the largest number of displaced people in the world, some 5.6 million people, according to the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). What lessons have you learned from this papal visit to the DRC?
Alois: “In his message of thanks to Pope Francis, Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, Archbishop of Kinshasa, presented the Congolese people as ‘a suffering people’; a people who are victims of violence, rebellions, war and the mismanagement of its natural resources by foreign predators in complicity with the sons of the country. Yes, the Congolese people are suffering, that is why the invitation to reconciliation is the solution for the unity of the Congo but also of the African people.
(Illustration photo) -People react as Pope Francis arrives in Kinshasa on Tuesday. ( Credit photo Reuters/Yara Nardi).
The call of Pope Francis is also addressed to all the African people. Put an end to the illicit exploitation of Africa’s wealth, “Take your hands off the Congo; take your hands off Africa. Stop suffocating Africa: it is not a mine to exploit nor a land to rob. Let Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny!” was Pope Francis’ other stirring appeal to the colonialist predators of the world who want to exploit Africa without reservation.”
Dominic: The Democratic Republic of Congo was a colony of Belgium between 1908 and 1960. In that year, it gained its independence as a result of the United Nations policy that ended the last colonies. What are the lessons for Catholics in the Congo after this visit?
Alois: “The DRC, which between 1971 and 1997 was known as Zaire, has more than 40% of Catholic Christians in its midst, represented by a young and active population; the Pope called on the youth to unity and brotherhood, inviting them to flee and avoid the gangrene of corruption that is eating away at the country and slowing down its development, the Pope invites the Congolese youth to embrace the values of honesty and transparency that are the values that Christ taught. The Pope’s message is relevant to African Catholics, especially to young people, the hope for the future of the continent.
Pope Francis is the second pope to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo, after St. John Paul II, who visited the country in 1980 and 1985, when it was called Zaire. The joy, excitement, and elation generated by the visit of Pope Francis to those present in Kinshasa, was also for all Congolese living outside the country, “we were all honored that the Pope could finally realize his promise, our expectation was fulfilled.” The Pope touched the reality of life of the Congolese people.
(Illustration photo) Billboard in DRC announces the visit of Pope Francis.
The message touched all the strata of the population, no one is left without benefit of the Pope’s words, the call to conversion, to unity, the search for peace, isn’t this all that our humanity aspires to? The Pope’s visit echoed among all Catholic Christians as a presence of Christ in their midst: “We saw the Holy Father, he spoke to us, it was as if Christ himself was there speaking to us, in his simplicity, despite his age…” Catholic Christians kept testifying in the streets of Kinshasa. The Pope’s message to the Congolese people gave them hope for the consolidation of peace and love in order to build an ever more beautiful and prosperous country. It is up to the Congolese people, and indeed to the people of Africa, to welcome the message, to make it germinate in their hearts what Pope Francis has sown during his visit.
Dominic: This trip was planned for July of last year, but the health of Pope Francis forced it to be postponed to this year.
The Catholic Church is the largest religious denomination in the DRC, with approximately 35 million faithful, or 50% of the population. “The impact of the Catholic Church in the DRC is hard to underestimate. Its schools have educated more than 60 percent of the country’s primary school students and more than 40 percent of secondary school students. The Church owns and manages a vast network of hospitals, schools and clinics, as well as many other projects,” said Fr. Godefroid Mombula Alekiabo, of the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, (CICM), professor and academic secretary of St. Augustine University, in Kinshasa, the country’s capital, during an online conference organized by Aid to the Church in Need on January 16.
Much of the church’s influence in the DRC dates back to colonial times, but “the reversal of the church’s role in relation to the state since independence has been striking. Once a reliable ally, it has increasingly become the state’s harshest institutional critic,” says the Congolese priest.
“Open conflict erupted in 1971 when the state, as part of its efforts to centralize and extend its authority, nationalized Catholic schools. The conflict intensified in 1972 when, as part of an authenticity campaign, all citizens were ordered to abandon their Christian baptismal names and adopt African names. The late Cardinal Joseph Albert Malula protested the decision. The regime retaliated by forcing the cardinal into exile for three months and seizing his residence,” he told the online audience.
Subsequent bans on Christmas celebrations, the nationalization of schools and the forced replacement in the country of images of the pope and crucifixes with portraits of Mobutu were short-lived. “The state’s lack of management skills and resources has made its handling of the education system a disaster. Faced with these realities, the president asked religious institutions to take over responsibility for denominational schools. Religion classes have been integrated back into the school curriculum,” explains Fr. Mombula, that today, “compared to the state, the Church is seen as a voice of opposition to authoritarian regimes.”
(Illustration photo)Worshipers greet Pope Francis as he arrives at N’Dolo Airport. (Credit photo AP/Moses Sawasawa).
The Pope’s visit is now behind us but, as the Holy Father concluded in his homily in Lingala: “moto azali na matoyi ya koyoka, ayoka, oyo azali na motema ya kondima, andima!” (He who has the ears to hear, let him hear; he who has the heart to apply, let him apply).
By Dominic Wabwireh