This article is fifth in a series of articles about the religious life and customs of African Catholics in the United States, and how the Church might better serve their pastoral needs.
Information about Congo
The twentieth century was the century of colonial emancipation, the century of revolution for the liberation of Africa from colonial rule and imperialist exploitation. From 1957 (with the independence of Ghana) there was an opening wide of the floodgates of African freedom. Five years after the independence of Ghana, eighteen other African countries achieved independence. The Congo was one of them.
The vast country of the Congo, about 77 times the size of Belgium, was between 1876 and 1908 the exclusive property of one man, King Leopold II of Belgium. He became one of the richest men in the world during that time of the occupation of the Congo.
In 1908 the Congo became a colony under the Belgian government. The Congo became independent in June 1960, and tragic subsequent events showed that the Belgians never intended that Congolese independence should, in fact, become effective. There were practically no experienced Congolese politicians or civil servants, and no Congolese officers in "the force publique". That was the time that a great leader named Patrice Emery Lumumba emerged. He was the first "premier minister" of the Congo.
The Democratic Republic of Congo is on the path to growth and development. This is one of the fastest growing regions in Africa with 52 million inhabitants. This means that the Democratic Republic of Congo has the third largest population and the second largest land area in the Sub-Saharan Africa, i.e., 2.3 million sq. km. (slightly less than a quarter of the size of the U.S.).
Rich in human resources, it is home to over 200 African ethnic groups, of which the majority are Bantu, Mongo, Luba, Kwese, Kongo, Tshokwe, Buda, Pende) and Mangbetu-Azande (Hamitic). Fifty percent of the population is Roman Catholic, with a total of 53 dioceses. Seventy seven percent of the total population is literate, with ages 15 and over generally able to read and write in the main languages.
The official language is French. However, the country has 4 national languages which are: Lingala, Kikongo, Tshiluba, Swahili, and French.
A Land of Opportunity
The country's wealth of natural resources include the second largest rain forest in the world, fertile soils and considerable and varied mineral resources.
The Congo has a tropical climate, which ensures good rainfall all year round, both north and south of the Equator.
Main Mining and Metallurgic Productions:
Copper, Diamond, Cobalt, and zinc and the main compounds in the above category. Other natural resources include cadmium, silver, manganese, tin, germanium, uranium, radium, bauxite, iron ore, and several other metals that have been mined in the southern and eastern Congo.
Central Congo until recently was one of the world's leading producers of industrial diamonds, and gold deposits have been found in the western and northeastern Congo.
Mining has long been the Congo's main foreign exchange earner and the key to its economic vitality. However, all these resources have been serving the pocket of a very few people, i.e., those in power. The rest of the population lives in an acute condition of poverty.
Clouds over the Democratic Republic of Congo: Political environment
Recent news from the Congo is not encouraging. Soon after the independence (June 30, 1960), this Congo went through a lot of tribulations and civil war, including:
July 31, 1960: Secession of Katanga
September 14, 1960: Colonel Mobutu neutralizes political institutions and their leaders. The "first coup d-etat" and the beginning of a dictatorship that will go on for 32 years.
January 17, 1961: Death by assassination of Lumumba. He was a national hero for the Congolese people. Not only did he fight and lead the Congo to independence, but he taught the Congolese the sense of nationalism and patriotism.
The reasons for the Congo's failure to fulfill the potential available when colonial rulers granted independence 41 years ago are a complicated mix, and it is not easy to explain them. The traces left by shortsighted colonial policies play a role: focusing economic development only on what helped the colonial empires, excluding Congolese from modern democratic politics. Local cultural perspectives contribute: ethnic rivalries keep bursting into violence; political rulers lay claim to the impressive prerogatives of traditional chiefs. The influence of the wider world's social attitudes contributes – ambitious Africans in general seek the power, riches, and celebrity that ‘advanced' society reverences as ‘success'. The developed countries also play important roles in Congolese affairs, not least by discretely distributing their largesse to people who control or are likely to control access to valuable local resources.
Then the civil war of 1996 broke up, followed by the Rwandese (Ugandese) invasion of 1998 that killed millions of Congolese. All this came, moreover, on top of reports about natural disasters and long festering social ills: floods, droughts, monopoly of public office, diversion of public funds into private pockets, inadequate health and education services, crumbling infrastructure, economic stagnation, and abject poverty.
Hopeful Signs for the Congo
It is obvious now that the new generation of Congolese is working seriously to turn unhappy trends around. Civil rights organizations are regularly protesting rights violations. Some newspapers repeatedly report government abuses and failures (boldness for which some journalists and other people have paid with their lives).
People are fighting for the freedom of expression in the press and other media, eliminating one party rule, creating pluralistic political systems and trying to subject officials' financial dealings to public scrutiny.
All the different organizations, especially churches, give their programs a very strong sense of easing the hardships of ordinary citizens and according more weight to communities' social values.
The Vitality of Christianity's Growth in the Congo
The Democratic Republic of the Congo is the place of the fastest growing Christian community in Africa. Fifty percent are Catholics. In one the major parishes - St. Augustine/Lemba for example, there were 125 baptisms one Easter. The Congo has a growing Catholic Church, a Church full of vitality, with a special rite known as the "Zairean Rite of the Mass". The vibrancy and vitality are in large measure due to the active participation of the laity. Even though there are a growing number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, the laity assumes a large role in the Church. The building of the community in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is taking place through the pastoral plan of the Congolese Bishop's conference, based on the idea of the small Christian community. It's a wonderful plan because it entails this active engagement of the people. "The Church in the neighborhood" is the way the Congolese refer to it. In other words, the Church is not just the place where people gather on Sundays. On Sunday the different communities come together for Mass, but during the week people are encouraged to gather for Bible study or to discuss how someone is doing who may have problems of one kind or another. This takes place in a very small community in the neighborhood.
The celebration of the sacraments, especially Baptism, assumes a central role for the Church in the Congo.
Two Marriage Rites
One marriage rite in the Congo is the traditional marriage, which sometimes takes a few years to be fully accepted by the two families. The second rite of marriage in the Congo is that of sacramental marriage within the Catholic Church. The difference between the tow is that the traditional marriage can be broken, whereas the sacramental cannot. This is where complications can arise. When a couple goes through the traditional marriage rite and also receives the blessing of the Church, but if later it turns out that there are no children, or that the relationship between the husband and wife breaks up, the families dissolve the traditional marriage, but the Catholic Church tells them that the couple is still bound by their sacramental vows. That creates a conflict between Church and culture.
The Congo has a very solid theological platform at the Catholic Univ. of Kinshasa known as "Les facultes Catholiques de Kinshasa", with a very strong theological sound known as the theology of Inculturation. During the 1994 Synod of African bishops, the Congolese theologians and the Bishops of the Congo addressed the issue and said that it was necessary to find a way to bring together the two rites – the traditional and the sacramental – in an effort to strengthen and solidify family life.
Prayer Life and Spirituality
The Bible is central to the spirituality of the Congo. Historically this goes back to 1985, especially to the movement known as the ‘born-agains'. These groups have very lively liturgies with a very strong attachment to the Scriptures. The birth of these Christian movements from the Protestant Church challenged the Catholic Church in the 80s. Now the Catholic Church learns from them how to enhance the liturgy and make it livelier. What happened is that the influence of these groups helped the Catholic Church to have a greater participation of youth in the liturgy. Therefore the Catholic Church learned from these groups how they were doing things and developing good youth support systems, enabling youth to have a meaningful role.
The Congo is an example of helpful ecumenical cooperation among the major Christian groups – Catholics, who are the largest; mainline Protestants like the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Methodists, and the Presbyterians; and the ‘Kimbanguists' which were founded by Simon Kimgangu, a native of the Congo. All of these Christian churches meet very often to pray together, especially when there is a national event.
Respect for their ancestors is sacred to the Congolese. Also, the sense of family is extremely strong. This affects economics, politics, and religion. Every aspect of life is related to family and to the extended family. That's why the African Synod of 1994 adopted the image of the Church as ‘the family of God'. The family is where life is transmitted, where people are accepted and nourished, and where community is built up.
Currently, the Congolese family structure is under a lot of pressure because of the changes in modern life. But despite these pressures from the modern world, the sense of family still remains strong.
The bishops are very committed pastorally to the country's social issues, and their Justice & Peace Commission has an excellent record of both statements and follow up to the statements.
There is more to be said on the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and on hope for the future of the Congo. The 32 years of dictatorship, the 2 civil wars, and the invasion that followed destroyed the basic essentials of life in the Congo. But the hope is that there will be truly integral human development, with a politics and economy that promote justice and dignity in that region. There is also hope that the faith of the people that is genuinely Christian and authentically African may grow stronger and stronger so that they may not be discouraged because of the past, but that the people may instead make whatever contribution they can and build their future.
The Congo is at a strategic place for the development of Africa. It requires the support of all other African countries and the international community at this time of its reconstruction and development.