DR Congo. Pope Francis. “Hands off Africa!”
“Africa: it is not a mine to be exploited or a land to be plundered”, says Pope Francis. And he invites the church to be close to the people with compassion, consolation and reconciliation. No scheming or compromises with power. “We must raise our voices for the people and for justice.” From Kinshasa, Celin Avil reports.
From the plane, Pope Francis can see the expanses of sheet metal shacks that surround Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which with its 15 million inhabitants is one of the largest urban agglomerations on the continent.
The ITA Airways Airbus A350 lands softly at Ndolo airport. The Pope is met by the damp tropical heat and an overcast sky. He is received by representatives of the government and of the local church. After brief greetings, Pope Francis leaves the airport for the Palais de la Nation north of Kinshasa on the banks of the Congo River. Along the way, there are thousands of people on the roofs, bridges and sidewalks.
Arriving at the Palais de la Nation, the Pontiff sits next to the President of the Republic, Félix Tshisekedi. “Welcome”: the Congolese president repeats it five times to the Pope, in French and in the other four national languages of the country, Lingala, Kikongo, Kingwana, Tshiluba. He describes the nation – 26 provinces in which over 450 tribes live – with a rich and harmonious cultural diversity, which has not been “a factor of separation”, but “a ferment for the advent of a land of peace and hospitality, as well as welcoming for the peoples of Africa and the world”. Regretfully, in the last three decades, says the head of State, this “has been undermined by enemies of peace and by terrorist groups, especially from neighbouring countries”, and unfortunately, for almost thirty years, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been tormented by violence, while armed groups, supported by foreign powers interested in the riches of the subsoil, commit cruel atrocities.
The head of State affirms that the Congolese people will continue to defend the integrity of their country and that the values of sharing, equity and responsibility can serve as the basis for building a more just and humane society.
Having expressed his thanks, Pope Francis immediately goes to the heart of the problem, recalling how over the decades, exploitation has changed form, from political to economic, leading to the paradox that the fruits of the earth make the country “foreign to its inhabitants”. The pontiff, with a determined gaze, repeats: “Hands off the Democratic Republic of the Congo, hands off Africa! Enough of oppression. Africa is not a mine to be exploited or a land to be plundered. May Africa be the protagonist of its own destiny! Africa deserves space and attention, respect and listening”.
‘Peace be with you’
The following day, in the large area of Kinshasa’s Ndolo airport, over a million people attended the Pope’s first and only public mass with a liturgy full of joy, dancing and singing.
Pope Francis addressed the faithful with a homily entirely focused on peace and its sources. “In a world discouraged by violence and war, Christians must do as Jesus did. Quite insistently, he repeatedly said to his disciples: ‘Peace be with you!’ and we are called to make our own and tell the world of this unexpected and prophetic announcement of peace”.
The pope recalls the example of Jesus: “He himself shows us three sources of peace, three sources for continuing to nourish it. They are forgiveness, community and mission”. For forgiveness, he says: “He knows your wounds, he knows the wounds of your country, of your people, of your land! They are burning wounds, continually infected by hatred and violence, while the medicine of justice and the balm of hope never seem to arrive. Brother, sister, Jesus suffers with you, he sees the wounds you carry inside and wants to console you and heal you, offering you his wounded Heart…Together today we believe that with Jesus there is always the possibility of being forgiven and starting over, as well as the strength to forgive yourself, others and history!”.
The pope speaks of amnesty of the heart: “May the time be right for you, who carry a heavy burden in your hearts and need to be relieved of it to breathe again” and he invites the faithful to write ‘Peace be with you’ in their rooms, on their clothes and outside their houses. He asks the community to stay together but “not to go ahead alone, seeking power, career, ambitions in society or even in the Church”.
The Congolese Catholic Church continues to be among the most vivacious in Africa, with a growth in the faithful who represent about 33% of the population which is 90% Christian and high Mass attendance, even among young people. And it can count on more than 4,000 diocesan priests and 11,000 religious engaged in the various areas of pastoral care. There is also no shortage of lay activism, with numerous lay associations and movements.
Victims of violence and war in the East
There was a moment full of emotion when meeting with representatives of the victims of the wars in particular from the east of the country, in Ituri, in North and South Kivu.
Hearing the terrible experiences recounted by the victims, Pope Francis’s face became sad and tears came to his eyes. Their stories seem impossible, extreme horror stories.
Francis thanked them for their courage, lamenting how the world is oblivious to all these tragedies.
Peace in the country depends on peace in the east. The Pope condemns violence at all levels. Personal and collective violence. He recalls that the causes are internal and external to the nation. His prayer is also for the conversion of the authors of these sad stories. Gun violence is provoked by the lust for possessions for their own sake.
He then addresses the perpetrators of violence and invites them to put an end to the war created and fuelled to enrich some at the expense of the poorest. Enough! Enough! But then, what are we to do? We must say no to violence with no ifs or buts. Hatred and violence are unacceptable, especially for Christians. God is a God of peace. Greed, envy, and resentment are the basis of violence, and they must be eradicated.
What is being asked is the disarming of the heart while maintaining the strength to be indignant in the face of evil and to denounce it. No to discouragement and fear. No more violence, resentment, or simple resignation. Yes, to reconciliation, to forgiveness, because these break the circle of violence.
The bishops, close to the people
Before departing from Ndolo airport, the Pope met the bishops of the 48 Congolese ecclesiastical circumscriptions and thanked them for the days spent in this land which, with its great forests, is the ‘green heart’ of Africa and lungs for the world.
The pope asks for them to be defended against the rapacity of humans. The forest is an image that speaks to our faith: we need to breathe the pure air of the Gospel. The Church is very important in the DRC, but it is also its lungs, breathing for the universal Church.
The pope recalls that bishops are the voice of God who touches people’s wounds. Being close to God brings them close to people with compassion, consolation, and reconciliation.
The Pope also suggests some paths for effective pastoral care: uproot the plants of hatred and selfishness, of rancour and violence; overthrow the altars dedicated to money and corruption; build coexistence based on justice, truth and peace.
Pope Francis concludes: “Announce the Word, denounce evil, awaken consciences and comfort those who are afflicted and without hope. Console the people. Closeness and testimony go hand in hand. Closeness to priests, first of all, to pastoral workers and people to build harmony without putting yourself on a pedestal. No scheming or compromise with power. We must raise our voices on behalf of the people and for justice”. (Open Photo: Along the way, there are thousands of people on the roofs, bridges and sidewalks. Photo: Vatican Media)