Pope Francis returned to Rome Sunday from his six-day trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
The pope used his visit to the DRC to highlight and oppose international economic exploitation, while also speaking directly to local leaders about the need for free and legitimate elections.
For the thousands of Congolese who lined the streets to greet Francis, and filled the Kinshasa airport for his open air Mass, the papal visit was an historic event.
The Pillar spoke with local journalist Antoine Roger Lokongo, who was there among the crowds, about what the pope’s speeches meant for the people of the DRC.
Pope Francis’ speeches during his stay in the DRC have been recognized for their international significance.
But what did his words mean for the people who actually gathered to hear him?
For the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pope Francis’ messages during his four-day trip were no ordinary speeches.
In Congolese culture, as in other African cultures, the discourse of a chief is seen as having a kind of mystical power. That’s why a chief’s speech is always preceded by rituals and dance, because it is expected to bring life-changing effects.
It is in this light that you can understand the dancing procession before the proclamation of the Gospel in the Congolese Rite of Mass (also known as the Zaire Rite). Also, before the pope’s speech to Congolese youth in a packed national stadium on Feb. 2, traditional dancing was performed to that effect, to the rhythm of drums and songs.
The Bongando people, my ethnic community, say that the words we utter incarnate our very being. Therefore, life can never exist without speech. Speech carries life. There is such a close relationship between speech and speaker that they are one, especially if that speaker is a world leader.
According to this worldview, a lie negates life; it betrays one’s being and affects the lives of those who hear it. It puts the whole community in danger because, as the Ubuntu philosophy expresses it, “I am because we are.”
It was easy for my ancestors to grasp the biblical and theological truth according to which when God utters a word it becomes a living creation. Jesus himself is the Word of God made flesh, whose word gives life and changes the world.
The pope’s messages during his visit to the capital, Kinshasa, were expected [locally] to change the reality in which local people live. This reality is marked by the exploitation of natural and mineral resources by external forces, wars, and policies that rob young people of their future.
Exploitative forms of capitalism and new types of slavery, colonialism, and imperialism have combined to unleash what has been called the most destructive economic, social, and political upheaval in modern African history.
The motto for the pope’s trip was “all reconciled in Christ,” which many understand in the context of the political situation in South Sudan. For the people of the Democratic Republic of Congo, what do those words signify?
The pope’s motto, “All reconciled in Christ,” struck a chord with the Congolese people as they face a desperate situation of war, plunder, and corruption — a people “bewitched by the spirit of the world,” as the spokesperson for youth said in his speech at the meeting with the pope.
To this people who struggle “to safeguard their dignity and their territorial integrity against the despicable attempts to fragment the country,” Pope Francis came as “a pilgrim of reconciliation and peace.”
The pope, who was welcomed to Kinshasa by local Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo Besungu, is very well informed about the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But he saw for himself the catastrophic predicament of the Congolese people when he met with survivors of atrocities in the eastern part of the country: victims of rape and mutilation. His visit highlighted the Congolese people’s plight in a way that it has not been for more than three decades.
Pope Francis unequivocally denounced the roots of this suffering, notably the “poison of greed” for mineral resources that drives conflict for the benefit of world powers and multinationals. He also condemned “terrible forms of exploitation, unworthy of humanity” where vast mineral wealth has fueled war, displacement, and hunger.
As he put it in his speech to Congolese authorities on the opening day of his visit: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo! Hands off Africa! Stop choking Africa: it is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”
In that speech, the pope also made a pointed comment to the country’s governing class, calling for “free, transparent and credible elections,” as the nation prepares for a decisive presidential election in December.
Addressing the Congolese bishops on the last day of the trip, the pope hinted that the country’s ongoing conflict with neighboring Rwanda and Uganda was based on invented pretexts.
Nevertheless, he invited the Congolese people, especially the ruling elite, to be more responsible, avoid corruption, be as transparent as a diamond, and not slide into tribalism.
If Francis’ message to secular and political leaders was clear, what was he saying to the Church in the DRC?
Papa Ekanga, the secretary of St. Perpetua Parish, told me that these papal exhortations applied also to the Church.
“Our whole society needs a fundamental change,” he said. “The pope also warned against the spirit of the world, a virus which has infected also our local Church. Priesthood and consecrated life is a service, not an elevation of social status.”
Another local preist, Fr. Louis Ngoyi, pastor of St. Perpétua parish, told me that, since the pope’s words carry weight within the international community “things are bound to change.”
At the end of the trip, Archbishop Marcel Utembi, president of the Congolese bishops’ conference, predicted that the impact of Pope Francis’ visit would be felt for years to come by the Church and the country.
The pope concluded his pastoral visit by describing the local Catholic Church as “a lung that helps the universal Church breathe.”
I think that is a beautiful analogy, with its allusion to the country’s rich forests. Good things — both natural resources and spiritual resources — do indeed come from the Congo, for the Church and the world.