Despite the disastrous Marxist influence up until 1992 and the recent proliferation of Protestant sects, the Catholic Church in Congo-Brazzaville is recovering some lost ground. During the visit of an ACN delegation to the diocese of Dolisie, established in 2013, Msgr. Bienvenu Manamika Bafouakouahou assessed the current situation in the country, and his way of bringing the Gospel message to the faithful in spite of Islam’s seduction. Msgr. Bafouakouahou, bishop of the youngest diocese in the country, was once a scholarship holder of ACN, and he is now in charge of the seminarians’ formation.
ACN: How are things in your diocese, the youngest in the country?
We have learned to walk, but we still don’t know our right hand from our left! We still face many challenges – syncretism, the Protestant sects, even Islam… But above all sickness and ill-health. There is no safe drinking water here; many adults die drinking contaminated water, and even the children that you can see here in our Catholic school of Saint Paul.
With the fall in the price of crude oil, poverty is also growing. Hundreds of people are buried, almost every day, since the situation has deteriorated greatly. The average Congolese is a poor man living in a rich country, with oil reserves welling up beneath the ground – yet the wealth is shared among a handful of the rich and powerful. The social crisis further complicates the situation. The state hospitals are on strike and have been for months, because the state is no longer providing any money to fund basic medicines.
If a priest falls gravely ill, will he not receive any care?
Only the dioceses of Brazzaville Pointe-Noire can afford to pay healthcare insurance for their priests. The rest have to get by as best they can. In my diocese my priests’ first concern is to get enough to eat. If one of them were to have serious health problems, I don’t know what we’d do.
One of them was actually attacked, just a few months ago…?
Yes, because of the syncretism. At the time of the municipal elections in 2017, one of the candidates brought out a fetish onto the streets at night time, in order to gain the good graces of an animist god and so secure a victory. Two weeks later, on the feast of Corpus Christi, the priest organised a procession with the Blessed Sacrament in the same part of town. Since the candidate had lost the election, he accused the priest’s God of having overpowered his own fetishist god, and the priest was violently beaten.
What happened to this priest?
He is now in France, in the diocese of Nice.
So one priest fewer for you … How are vocations holding up?
They have never been lacking. And it’s wonderful to see today that they no longer come only from the south – where the missionaries mainly worked – but also from the north.
A plentiful supply of vocations is generally a sign of vitality in the Church, but are there some vocations less soundly based, motivated perhaps only by the economic crisis?
Discernment plays a crucial role here. As one form of screening, we do not recruit anyone aged over 22 in my diocese. I have found that after that age, a young person not having found a satisfactory professional solution, can sometimes « fall back » on the priesthood. And before entry into the seminary, we also organise retreats with the candidates and observe them closely… But even then some of them play the game very well throughout the course. So what we need to do above all is to deeply root the faith of the ordinary people.
How do you manage to evangelise in depth?
By getting out of my Bishop’s house! At first, even the other bishops wondered what I was about. I go out onto the market square and, for seven days, together with a lay helper and a religious sister, we preach, explain the sacraments, and so forth. We also make good use of our local Catholic radio station, which is widely listened to, and in May we organise a large Marian procession, which drew 300 people in 2015 and 8,100 in 2017!
So do you harangue them… like the Pentecostalist churches, the evangelical sects that seem to be everywhere?
We have a popular approach, certainly, but we also focus on Adoration. During our evangelisation campaign, on the first day I dance with the people, and then from the second day onwards, I quote them Matthew 6:6: « When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you » .
Is that enough to gain the respect of these fundamentalist churches?
No. Besides, the Catholic Church, although still widely listened to, is no longer the Church of reference. Between 1995 and 2005 we shrank from 60% of Catholics to 40%. We felt as if we had been wrung dry. It was something like a haemorrhage.
Why this haemorrhage?
The politicians identified the Catholic Church as the sole institution capable of overshadowing them. They wanted to weaken her by financially strengthening the Pentecostalist churches and creating them into a federation. They pilloried the Catholic Church. It was high time for me to go out into the streets!
Are things going better now?
Yes, a number of people are returning to the Catholic Church, but there are new threats on the horizon, including Freemasonry – a real calamity – and also Islam. Given the poverty in the country, Islam and its money are seducing the young people – even including some of my altar servers!
Can you give us an example?
Alain. He was one of our choirboys; then he disappeared from one day to the next, and there was no sign of life from him for two years – when one of our parishioners found him performing his ablutions in a shop. I asked him since when he had become a Muslim. He replied: « Father, when I was your altar server, did you give me a penny? With Islam I was given a scholarship, a wife and my shop. » They had sent him abroad to study the Koran. In return he was given work, and today he is in charge of recruiting other young men! That story really shook me up.
How has Islam managed to gain this visibility?
Before, when Muslims were generally regarded as strangers from West Africa, they married Congolese women, who became Muslims by marriage, while still remaining Congolese. And in addition some Muslims arrived in the area from nowhere and built an empty mosque… in readiness for the return of their young scholarship holders who had been sent to study in Saudi Arabia, for example.
And in your own diocese?
There are at least three newly built mosques … And a number of future jihadists.
Over the past 10 years the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) has funded almost 250 projects in the Republic of Congo (also known as Congo Brazzaville). Thanks to the generosity of its benefactors, the charity has given around 2.5 million Euros in aid during this time, above all for religious formation projects and the support of priests via the provision of Mass Stipends, and it has also helped fund construction projects and essential means of transport for pastoral work.