By Ambassador Callista L. Gingrich
In a highly anticipated visit, Pope Francis made an Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo this week to bring a message of peace and hope to a nation ravaged by conflict, political instability, and poverty.
As more than 120 armed groups fight for control of the resource-rich eastern Congo, more than 5.5 million people have been displaced from their homes, the world’s third-highest number of internally displaced people. But amidst such tragedy, faith has been a source of strength for the Congolese people.
Catholics in the DRC make up about 33 percent of the population and are shepherded by more than 4,600 diocesan priests, 11,000 Congolese men and women religious, and numerous lay associations and movements. The Congolese Catholic Church is an important pillar of society and provides critical social services through its network of hospitals, social centers, and schools.
As thousands of people lined the streets to welcome Pope Francis upon his arrival in Kinshasa on Tuesday, the positive impact that the Catholic Church has had on the DRC and the role of faith in the hearts of its people was made clear.
On his first day in Kinshasa, Pope Francis paid a courtesy visit to President Félix Tshisekedi, whose 2018 election marked the first peaceful transfer of power since the country’s independence from Belgium. As Cardinal Fridolin Ambongo, Archbishop of Kinshasa, remarked, as the DRC prepares to hold general elections in December, the Holy Father’s visit brings encouragement to hold “free, transparent, inclusive, and peaceful elections.”
Pope Francis then met with government authorities, civil society, and the diplomatic corps and denounced ongoing violence and foreign nations’ exploitation of the DRC’s natural resources. “This country and this continent deserve to be respected and listened to; they deserve to find space and receive attention,” Pope Francis asserted. “It is not a mine to be stripped or a terrain to be plundered.”
On Wednesday, a public holiday was declared and more than one million people gathered at the N’dolo Airport in Kinshasa for Mass celebrated by Pope Francis. As schoolgirls dressed in white danced along the Holy Father’s route, and a choir of 700 people assembled, an attendee said, “My joy is too huge that I think I am going to cry.”
During his homily, Pope Francis told the Congolese faithful, that Jesus “knows the wounds of your country, your people, your land!” He called on those engaged in violence to heed the Lord’s call and “Lay down your arms, embrace mercy.” The Holy Father added that Jesus “wants to anoint us with His forgiveness, to give us peace and the courage to forgive others in turn, the courage to grant others a great amnesty of the heart.”
Following Mass, Pope Francis met with survivors of the violence in eastern DRC and listened to their heartbreaking stories. A young farmer described seeing men dressed as soldiers tear apart his father and kidnap his mother. A young woman, standing before the Holy Father with her twin daughters, described how she was kidnapped by rebels, raped for 19 months by their commander, and escaped while she was pregnant.
As a symbol of forgiveness, survivors laid down the machetes and knives that were used to kill their families and other items that represented their suffering at the foot of the Cross. After hearing the testimonies of those impacted by the horrific violence, the Holy Father said, “We are left without words; we can only weep in silence.”
The Holy Father concluded the second day of his Apostolic Journey by meeting with representatives from numerous charities in Kinshasa. Pope Francis thanked them for their work and noted his appreciation that their testimonies did not focus on lists of problems and statistics, “but more importantly spoke with affection about the poor” people “with names and faces” whom Christians “cannot turn their backs on.”
On Thursday morning, Pope Francis gathered with more than 65,000 young people and catechists. He told them to “never grow discouraged” in working to build a better future and urged them to rely on prayer, community, honesty, forgiveness, and service. He also offered encouragement to priests, deacons, consecrated persons, and seminarians, whom he met with that afternoon. Despite “enormous challenges,” the Holy Father said, there is “great joy in the service of the Gospel.”
On Friday, Pope Francis met with bishops before departing the Democratic Republic of the Congo for South Sudan, where he will make an ecumenical pilgrimage for peace to Juba.
Pope Francis’s Apostolic Journey to the Democratic Republic of the Congo sounded a clarion call for an end to violence in the DRC and illuminated a path toward a peaceful future for the Congolese people.