CAN POPE'S DRC TRIP NAVIGATE CATHOLICISM TOWARDS PEACE OR MAINTAIN CONTROVERSIAL LEGACY?
Pope Francis recently embarked on his 40th Apostolic Journey abroad, visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and South Sudan from January 31 to February 5, 2021. Dubbed the "pilgrim of peace," the Pope's trip aimed to bring hope and solace to the suffering populations of these two nations.
His visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and South Sudan was a bold move, considering the tumultuous state of these countries. In his quest to bring peace, Pope Francis stepped into the heart of conflict, shining a spotlight on the struggles of the people in these regions and inspiring a call for change.
In DRC, the Pope addressed the elephant in the room: the country's suffering from armed clashes and exploitation, particularly in the eastern region. Pope Francis' visit was not just a symbolic gesture, but a call to action. He recognized the pain and hardships that the Congolese people have faced, and his presence offered hope and comfort. He stood with them in their struggles and showed the world that they are not forgotten. Pope Francis has demanded that foreign powers stop plundering Africa’s natural resources for the “poison of their own greed” after he landed in the Democratic Republic of Congo . His words were a powerful reminder that peace cannot exist without justice.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also paid a visit to the war-ravaged South Sudan, where he encountered a land wrecked by conflict and years of violence. He expressed his heartfelt sorrow at the dire circumstances faced by the people, many of whom have been forced to flee their homes and live in the most trying of conditions. His visit, like that of Pope, sought to bring a glimmer of hope and peace to a country that has known far too much violence and suffering. The trips serve to shine a light on the ongoing struggles of the people and to remind the world that peace and comfort are still very much in demand.
However, there are observers who have questioned the role of Catholic Church in Colonial Congo stirring up old wounds that the Catholic Church has never fully addressed making the Pope’s message of "peace and reconciliation" seem like a hypocritical motto for an institution steeped in controversy. Can Church leaders summon the bravery to acknowledge the heavy burden their institution carries? Why has the habit of "covering up" become so ingrained in the Church's self-perception? These are the questions that were overlooked during the recent visit of Head of Catholic Church.
Michela Wrong's book on the Democratic Republic of Congo ‘’In the footsteps of Mr. Kurtz’ gives an account on the brutal atrocities that were committed by the Catholic Church against the Congolese people during the colonial era. The book documents how Catholic missions in the DRC often operated as a front for European companies seeking to exploit the country's vast natural resources, including rubber, gold, and diamonds. In some cases, Catholic priests and nuns were directly involved in the exploitation of local communities, and they used their spiritual authority to coerce the Congolese into providing cheap labor and resources.
It also sheds light on the widespread enslavement of the Congolese people by European colonizers, including Catholic missionaries. According to Wrong, many Catholic missions in the DRC were built on the backs of forced labor, and the Church was complicit in the exploitation of enslaved people. It chronicles in great detail how Catholic missions in the DRC were often used as a cover for brutal repression by the colonial authorities. Finally, it covers the sexual exploitation of Congolese women and girls by Catholic priests and nuns. Wrong argues that the Catholic Church turned a blind eye to these abuses and failed to hold those responsible accountable for their actions. These cases demonstrate the ways in which the Catholic Church was complicit in some of the worst crimes committed against the Congolese people during the colonial era. They also highlight the importance of examining the role of the Church in this period and of acknowledging the many ways in which it contributed to the suffering and exploitation of the Congolese people.
Pope’s and Archbishop of Canterbury’s visits have been hinged on the message of Peace and Reconciliation. For most critics, in the context of the Catholic Church's role in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) during the colonial era, there has been a tendency of some members of the Church to downplay or ignore the negative aspects of the Church's involvement in the country, and to present a more positive and sanitized version of the Church's history in the DRC.
Critics argue that this practice of "whitewashing" is problematic because it obscures the truth about the Church's role in the country's history and reinforces a distorted view of the past. By failing to acknowledge the many ways in which the Church contributed to the suffering and exploitation of the Congolese people, the Church risks perpetuating a false narrative and hindering progress towards reconciliation and justice. It is increasingly seen as another tactic of Church’s moralising on the subject as a form of condescension, even a kind of vestigial colonialism.
But as Michela Wrong asks, how do the Churches both the Catholic and Anglican and their establishment reconcile the notion of peace and reconciliation with the many injustices committed in their name? Why does so much of its history consist of numerous examples of brutal excesses committed by the Church upon the native Congolese? The horrific actions committed by the Catholic Church in Congo, for which it has never offered reparations or an apology to the Congolese people, highlights a complete lack of remorse on the part of the institution. It is paradoxical that the very same Church and its leaders are preaching peace and reconciliation. While it may not have been the intention of Pope Francis' visit, it nonetheless brings attention to the irony of the situation. If the visit was meant to address this irony, then it should be applauded for doing so in a straightforward manner.
Pope Francis' recent visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo was a much-anticipated event, as the pontiff sought to bring a message of peace and unity to a country that has seen far too much conflict and division. However, amidst the celebration and pageantry of the Pope's visit, there was a haunting irony that could not be ignored: the Catholic Church and its missionaries have been implicated in some of the worst atrocities committed in Congo's recent history.
For many Congolese, the Catholic Church represents both a source of hope and a painful reminder of the past. The Church has played a central role in the lives of the Congolese people for over a century, providing education, healthcare, and spiritual guidance to millions. But, at the same time, the Church and its missionaries have also been accused of participating in or turning a blind eye to some of the most brutal crimes of the colonial era, including enslavement, rape, and murder. This has led many to question the sincerity of Pope Francis' message of peace, and whether the Catholic Church is truly committed to addressing its past wrongs and working towards a better future for the Congolese people. Despite these criticisms, Pope Francis' visit to Congo was an opportunity for the pontiff to demonstrate his commitment to reconciliation and justice. In his speeches and sermons, the Pope spoke about the need for forgiveness, healing, and unity, and he called on the Catholic Church to take a leading role in promoting these values.
While the Catholic Church remains deafeningly silent about its role in Congo's suffering, the Anglican Church has struck a chord of redemption. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, hit all the right notes with his recent apology for the Church's involvement in the sinister symphony of slavery. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has chosen to play dumb about its own dark history, the Anglican Church's act of contrition has set a new bar for acknowledging and addressing past wrongs. Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby may have had similar intentions with their visits to war-torn nations, but their different approaches to facing the past is music to the ears of those seeking true reconciliation.
Pope Francis' visit to Congo was a historic event that brought attention to the ongoing challenges faced by the Congolese people. While the Pope's message of peace was well-received by many, there is a growing sense of cynicism and skepticism among those who have been directly impacted by the Catholic Church's past wrongs. For the Catholic Church to truly be an agent of peace and reconciliation in Congo, it must take concrete steps to address its past abuses, promote transparency, and work towards a better future.