Pope Francis visited the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on January 31, then on February 3, Juba, the capital of South Sudan. In Juba, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, accompanied the Pope.
The DRC is the Largest Catholic Country in Africa
According to figures communicated by the Holy See, the DRC, formerly Zaire, has more than 52 million Catholics out of just over 105 million inhabitants. This represents nearly 20% of Catholics on the African continent (257 million). In numbers of faithful, the DRC is the premier French-speaking Catholic country in the world.
However, the total of Catholic priests in the country remains low, 6,162 priests. In comparison, France had nearly 14,000 priests in 2021. The Church in the Democratic Republic of Congo has a very large network of lay people, involved in pastoral and social missions, which includes 76,794 catechists.
Finally, the Catholic Church finds itself in strong competition from the evangelical denominations which have experienced growing success in recent years. The Vatican estimates that 22% of the Congolese population is Protestant, and that 19% belong to evangelical and Pentecostal circles.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo
Arriving on January 31 in Kinshasa, Pope Francis was welcomed on the tarmac of the airport by the Prime Minister of the DRC, Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde Kyenge. Then, he went to the Palais de la Nation to meet with President Félix Tshisekedi, with whom he gave a speech before the civil authorities.
On February 1, the Sovereign Pontiff celebrated Mass at Ndolo airport in Kinshasa in front of more than a million faithful in a warm atmosphere. He called them to be “missionaries of peace” to “break the circle of violence” and “dismantle the plots of hate.”
“Jesus says today to every family, community, ethnic group, neighborhood and city in this great country: Peace be with you,” he added. During this “festive” Mass, celebrated with certain elements of the Zairian rite, the Pope spoke several times in French.
The President of the DRC, Felix Tshisekedi, was present at the Mass, with his wife. Baptized Catholic, the head of state has since became an evangelical Christian.
At the Apostolic Nunciature in Kinshasa, Francis listened to four harrowing accounts of victims of physical and mental abuse in the war ravaging eastern DRC. He united himself with the pain of the people who were suffering, and addressed a vibrant appeal to all those who pull the strings of the war in the DRC:
“Hear the cry of their blood; silence the guns, end the war. Enough! Enough of getting rich on the backs of the weak, enough of getting rich with resources and money tainted with blood!”
To obtain peace, the Successor of Peter asked everyone “to love their neighbor, that is not to harbor hatred towards others,” not to give in to resignation. “Peace requires fighting the discouragement, gloom, and distrust that lead to the belief that it is better to be wary of everyone, to live separate and apart rather than reach out to each other.”
Suffering can then be transformed into hope: “If you can envision reconciliation as a tree, as a palm tree that bears fruit, hope is the water that makes it flourish. Then add the name of Jesus to this hope.”
On February 2, Francis addressed the young Congolese and the catechists gathered in the Martyrs of Pentecost stadium in Kinshasa: “the future of the country is in your hands.” In the DRC, 60% of the population is under 20 years old. “You are a unique, unparalleled and incomparable wealth. No one in history can replace you,” Francis told the more than 65,000 young people and catechists present.
And he gave them five pieces of advice: prayer, “your secret, the water of your soul, the only weapon you must carry with you, your daily traveling companion”; the community, “do not be fascinated by selfish false paradises, built on appearances, easy money or distorted religiosity”; honesty, the opposite of corruption, “is the fundamental ingredient for a future that meets your expectations”; forgiveness, the force that keeps us going; and finally a sense of service.
The Sovereign Pontiff then spoke in the Our Lady of Kinshasa cathedral in front of more than a thousand priests, men and women religious, and seminarians. “The secret of everything is prayer because the ministry and the apostolate are not primarily our work and do not depend only on human means,” he underlined, inviting his audience to cultivate the rhythms of liturgical prayer that punctuate the day, from the Mass to the breviary, without forgetting confession. The Pope recommended that everyone never tire of invoking the Virgin Mary.
Finally, on February 3, Francis met with the bishops of the National Episcopal Conference of Congo (Cenco) in Kinshasa. Before flying to South Sudan, the Holy Father addressed the bishops in charge of the 48 dioceses of the DRC, the largest Catholic country in Africa.
“We need to breathe the clean air of the Gospel, to expel the polluted air of worldliness, to keep the heart young in the faith,” he told them.
In South Sudan
For the second stage of this apostolic journey, Francis was accompanied by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, Iain Greenshields, thus making this trip an ecumenical journey.
At the Presidential Palace in Juba, on February 3, the pope delivered an extremely harsh speech with regard to the South Sudanese authorities present. “Future generations will honor or erase the memory of your names depending on what you do now,” he said.
Coming as a “pilgrim of reconciliation” with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, he urged President Salva Kiir and the vice-presidents - the leaders of the country who continue to tear themselves apart against a backdrop of ethnic struggle and financial interests – to care about a people thirsting for peace, to respect the principles of the rule of law and to resume the abandoned peace process.
In South Sudan, the internecine struggle between President Salva Kiir – a Catholic, of Dinka ethnicity – and his vice-president Riek Machar – a Presbyterian, of Nuer ethnicity – degenerated into civil war less than two years after the founding of the country in 2011, causing the death of 400,000 people and the exodus of 4 million South Sudanese (out of 12 million) refugees in neighboring countries or internally displaced persons (IDP).
On February 4, the Pope met with bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons and seminarians at St. Teresa Cathedral in Juba: 5,000 people gave Francis a warm welcome. The Pope took up the metaphor of the Nile, outlined the day before in his speech to the political authorities, emphasizing that “in the bed of this river, the tears of a people plunged in suffering and pain, martyred by the violence, pour out.”
He then invited clerics and consecrated people to be attentive to the plight of a population marked – for a third of the total of South Sudanese – by forced displacements inside or outside the country due to successive wars that plunged the country into chaos.
Then an ecumenical vigil took place at the John Garang Mausoleum which houses the tomb of the “father” of South Sudan independence in 2011. In the presence of 50,000 people the pope invited everyone to “pray for this wounded people,” within which coexist some sixty ethnic groups. He urged all Christian leaders to pray “diligently and unanimously” for South Sudan to “rejoin the promised land.”
Indeed, “praying gives one the strength to move forward, to overcome fears, to glimpse, even in the darkness, the Salvation that God is preparing,” he said. Francis recalled that the two essential commandments of Jesus are “Love one another as I have loved you” (Jn 15:12) and “That they all may be one” (Jn 17:21). Such commandments require “that there be no more room for a culture based on the spirit of revenge among those who profess themselves believers.”
On the last day, during the Mass celebrated on February 5 in front of nearly 70,000 people, including President Salva Kiir, the sovereign pontiff launched a new appeal to oppose the logic of forgiveness instead of violence. “Let us lay down the weapons of hatred and revenge so as to embrace prayer and charity,” Francis urged.
“In South Sudan, there is a courageous Church, related to that of Sudan,” recalled the Pope. He evoked the figure of Joséphine Bakhita, a Sudanese slave who became a nun in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century. “A great woman who, with the grace of God, transformed the suffering she endured into hope.”
The Sovereign Pontiff explained that “hope, here in particular, is under the sign of women.” He expressed his gratitude and blessing for “all the women in the country.”
Francis insisted on the importance of this visit for Christian unity, evoking the presence of the Anglican primate and the moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Then, in a non-ecumenical way, the Pope entrusted to the intercession of the Virgin Mary “the cause of peace in South Sudan and throughout the African continent, where so many of our brothers and sisters in the faith suffer from persecution and dangers, where so many people suffer from conflict, exploitation and poverty.” He also entrusted the peace in the world to her, “especially the many countries that find themselves at war, such as wounded Ukraine,” added Francis.